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Thursday, April 29, 2010 05:41 am

The Presidential museum turns five

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Abe World opened five years ago this month, on April 19. Drawing on all the dark arts of electronic hucksterism, the new museum was to transform Springfield into a Mecca for patriots who would make their hajj by the millions in their Caravans and Odysseys.

Has it? Has it returned a decent profit on the investment of nearly $150 million of public dollars? After a bumptious first couple of years, attendance flagged as gasoline prices briefly reached record high levels and the economy later was hobbled by recession. Like all local tourist sites, the ALPLM was hurt by the economic downturn that began in 2008. Its effects were aggravated by budget-related cutbacks in hours at such State of Illinois Lincoln sites as the Lincoln Tomb, Lincoln-Herndon Law Offices, Old State Capitol and New Salem.

Oddly, the relative drop in attendance was largest at Abe World, even though it, alone among the state-run sites, had not cut back its hours. The people count for 2008 was 17 percent lower than the 2007 number. Among other major Lincoln sites, only the tomb saw a drop of that magnitude – 14 percent – while the home and New Salem and the Old State Capitol were down a modest 4-6 percent.

Apples and oranges, you could say, since the home and tomb and Old State Capitol are free and Abe World charges a sawbuck to get in. The more apt way to analyze attendance trends at the ALPLM is to compare it with itself. In the first year and a half, the museum was pulling in visitors at rate of some 600,000 a year, nearly half again as many as today. This, as museum backers are happy to remind us, was even more than what they had hoped for. Norm Sims, now the executive director of the Springfield-Sangamon County Regional Planning Commission, in 2001 told the press that he expected the library and museum then being planned would draw 500,000 visitors a year.

However, the annual average over the first five years fell short of that – 436,000 annual visitors – even taking into consideration those early crowds of curiosity-seekers. The head count for 2009 at Abe World – 410,825 – was up by 17 percent over 2008. Attendance at the nation’s pre-eminent Lincoln education emporium should have been way up in 2009, considering the enormous – one might say egregious – promotion of the bicentenary of Mr. Lincoln’s birth. (A tentative recovery in “consumer optimism,” meaning the public’s eagerness to live beyond its means, boosted tourism in general in 2009; attendance at 14 Chicago-area museums and zoos in 2009 went up 7 percent compared to the previous year.) But while the 2009 attendance numbers were better than 2008, Abe World still entertained 14,000 fewer people than showed up 2007, even though 2007 had not been so hot either, since summer travel that year was blighted by high gasoline prices.

As go the body counts, so go the dollar counts. The impact of the ALPLM is best measured not in the number of people who come to Springfield to see it, but the number of extra people who come to Springfield to see it. Changes in attendance at other nearby Lincoln sites suggest that this number – again not counting the bicentenary year of 2009 – is not large. State Journal-Register reporter Jayette Bolinski noted last December, the throngs of tourists and influx of downtown businesses that were rather naively expected after Abe World’s opening have yet to materialize. If they haven’t yet, they never will.

Perhaps these relatively modest recent crowds at Abe World should not be understood as being unusually low. Rather, attendance in the first few years after opening were unusually high. One would expect big crowds when it was new, and the buzz was about, followed by slowish decline. No one should have expected the museum to maintain those early numbers. Indeed, it would be an achievement to continue to draw 400,000 year after year, since other presidential museums don’t draw flies. I would expect it to continue to slip.

How low will it go? It might still be a little too soon to say. The problem with turning history into entertainment is that the public judges history by entertainment standards. The Civil War and assassination are paltry stuff to Americans who amuse themselves watching whole planets explode. To keep the suckers coming through the turnstiles, you have to make the past seem ever noisier, gaudier, more vulgar.

Not that Abe World is not game to try. The museum will try to keep the birthday balloon in the air by marketing the upcoming sesquicentenaries of Lincoln’s election in 2010 and his farewell speech to Springfield. It might seem odd that Springfield would want to commemorate the day when Lincoln left town for a better job in a bigger city, but as a local tourism official said to the SJ-R not long ago, “We’re not proud.”  

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.

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