[Paleopsych] NYT: Strumming the Mystic Chords of Memory

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Tue Apr 19 12:43:22 UTC 2005

Arts > Art & Design > Museum Review: Strumming the Mystic Chords of Memory

    SPRINGFIELD, Ill., April 18 - It is not Abraham Lincoln's handwritten
    copy of the Gettysburg Address that is getting all the attention here,
    nor is it one of his stovepipe hats, still bearing the marks of his
    fingers where he regularly reached for its brim. Not even the white
    gloves found in his pocket after he was shot by John Wilkes Booth lure
    many viewers.

    These objects may bear the ghostly traces of Lincoln's touch, but
    would a $90 million museum have been built to house them? Would $54
    million of that sum have gone to the design firm BRC Imagination Arts
    (which describes itself as the creators of "21st-century
    experience-based attractions"), if the usual museum display cases were
    the main experience being offered? And would such objects have
    inspired the fireworks and festivities of this past weekend, let alone
    the dedication ceremony scheduled for Tuesday morning, with 10,000
    seats set up outdoors and President Bush expected to speak after a
    museum tour?

    Not likely. Something more is being promised by the new Abraham
    Lincoln Presidential Museum, a building designed by Gyo Obata. It is
    the centerpiece of a $150 million construction and development project
    in downtown Springfield that already includes a $25 million Abraham
    Lincoln Presidential Library, housing more 12 million items, 47,000 of
    them related to Lincoln. (It is also the depository of the Illinois
    State Historical Library.) The complex will eventually have a park and
    a renovated 19th-century train station, serving as a parking garage
    and visitor orientation center.

    Almost a million people visit Lincoln-related sites every year in
    Illinois, according to the Convention and Visitor's Bureau in
    Springfield; the new research library and museum will become what they
    are calling the city's crown jewel.

    What is being promised is not just a tourist attraction, but a full
    Lincoln Experience. As Richard Norton Smith, the museum's executive
    director, said, "If you want to see marble icons, go to Washington."
    BRC's founder, Bob Rogers (who once worked at Walt Disney
    Imagineering), said the goal was to overturn traditional expectations
    and create an "experience museum." "There is nothing we wouldn't do,"
    he said in a conversation, "to get people in."

    The strategy is hinted at in a magical stage presentation, "Ghosts of
    the Library," at which a historian emerges on a set that suggests the
    research facility next door. Why should we care about all these old
    objects, he asks. But thanks to technological stagecraft, they seem to
    come to life as he handles them. A quill pen lifts and writes the
    Gettysburg Address in midair. A soldier's diary conjures up a battle.

    In the museum, too, historical documents are meant to bring ghostly
    history to life. Instead of marble icons posed in Lincolnesque
    grandeur surrounded by etched texts, there are fiberglass and silicone
    figures inhabiting lifelike dioramas: a young Abe Lincoln reading
    Aesop's Fables outside his Indiana log cabin; Lincoln in his general
    store in New Salem, Ill.; on a couch courting Mary Todd; in the White
    House with the Emancipation Proclamation; at Ford's theater moments
    before he was shot.

    There is also sound: whispered insults like those hurled at President
    Lincoln by editorialists and cartoonists; vituperation hollered at him
    by images of actors objecting to the Emancipation Proclamation; voices
    of black servants in the White House kitchen discussing the latest
    gossip. There is even video, including a mock television studio in
    which the newscaster Tim Russert reports on the election of 1860,
    complete with campaign commercials.

    We are led through a virtual life of sorts. Even locations not far
    from the museum are reproduced: the train depot where Lincoln said
    farewell as he went off to Washington, the Old State Capitol where his
    body was viewed by 75,000 mourners.

    The museum literature points out that its goal "is not to fully
    explain all of the issues that confronted Lincoln but to inspire in
    the visitor a deep sense of personal connection and empathy with the

    And indeed, there is something almost eerily lifelike about many of
    the museum's figures, which were created using photographs and
    computer modeling, to simulate the characters' appearances at
    different ages. It is difficult not to sense the trauma in the Mary
    Todd Lincoln figure, sitting isolated in a chair by a window after
    their son's death in the White House, the raindrops casting shadows on
    her face like tears. And one doesn't think of Lincoln in the same way
    after seeing photographs of his increasingly worn face displayed in
    year-by-year succession during the Civil War. There is also an
    astonishing use of technology in a four-minute history of the Civil
    War, as an animated map shows the shifting borders, battles and

    The problem is that some of the museum is history, and some of it is
    not. Some of it is "experience," and some of it is true. At a time
    when an Academy Award-winning documentary, "Mighty Times: The
    Children's March," puts invented historical scenes into its narration
    without warning or notice, this museum does something similar. The
    words of the insults hurled at Lincoln and the arguments by his
    opponents are almost all paraphrased or invented.

    The soundtrack of the assassination of Lincoln omits John Wilkes
    Booth's declaration from the stage after the murder - "Sic semper
    tyrannis," Virginia's motto, meaning "thus always to tyrants" -
    because there was concern about whether it would be understood.

    The same simplification takes place in the dramatized rhetoric and
    arguments of Lincoln's critics. But how then do we begin to appreciate
    the glorious rhetoric and pungent argument of Lincoln himself? How do
    we understand Lincoln's ideas about slavery, or why the Emancipation
    Proclamation affected only the Confederacy and not the four
    slave-holding border states that remained in the Union?

    And of course, the recent scholarly discussions about Lincoln, some of
    which were touched on in a two-day conference that ended Monday at the
    next-door library, are not reflected here at all: debates about his
    sexuality, about the shifting nature of his religious beliefs, about
    his view of civil liberties. Here, Lincoln remains an icon: the
    Suffering Servant of the Union, a martyr for the cause of equality.
    Complications are shunted aside for a series of psychodramas. Various
    exhibition rooms have suggestive psychological titles: "Hall of
    Sorrows," "Whispering Gallery," "Illusion Corridor."

    Dominating the entrance hall, for example, is a scale model of the
    White House portico; and within is seen not Lincoln at work, but Mary
    being fitted for a ball dress, surrounded by dresses worn by her
    social critics and rivals, the explanatory panel suggesting that for
    her, as for her husband, "the White House was a war zone." That may
    also be why figures of Booth, Frederick Douglass and Civil War
    generals loiter outside the portico. They embody the husband's

    The personal is the political: that seems to be the motto of this life
    "experience." And the political becomes personal, represented not by
    argument but by shouted insults and condensed formulas, as if the
    sound bites of 2005 really resembled the political debates of the
    early 1860's.

    None of this, of course, undermines the entertainment offered, and it
    will be surprising if Springfield does not realize its ambitions: the
    museum promises fun, delivered with at least some insight along the

    But there is still something serious being undermined. The blurring of
    history for the sake of entertainment may not be something new. After
    all, the village of New Salem, about a 20-minute drive from
    Springfield, was where Lincoln tended store and began his political
    career, but the town didn't survive. So in the 1920's and 30's, it was
    "reconstructed"; it is an invented historical village.

    But the new museum, because of technological power alone, risks making
    invention seem like fact. It also enshrines a notion that the best way
    to know anything about politics and history is to understand
    personality, and even then only in a simplified fashion. Maybe it will
    lead to curiosity and further inquiry; maybe not. But it is telling
    that by the end of the presentation "Ghosts of the Library," the
    historian ends up turning into a ghost himself, and disappears into
    thin air.


    1. http://query.nytimes.com/search/query?ppds=bylL&v1=EDWARD%20ROTHSTEIN&fdq=19960101&td=sysdate&sort=newest&ac=EDWARD%20ROTHSTEIN&inline=nyt-per

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