Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum
When this VIP museum opened in 2005, it was criticized by some for being designed by former Disney "imagineers." And that's bad? Abe and Disney are such an odd American couple that you feel duty-bound to come here, to see if the promised "full-immersion experiences" are just a cold dunking, or if they really do re-make Abe into the Great Emancitainer.
(We know that Lincoln's official museum would never allow a nutcracker-jawed Abe robot at the ticket booth, or a boat ride through a Civil War battle fought by animal puppets in giant pants -- although we think that both would provide fresh historical perspectives.)
David Blanchette, our tour guide, told us that the Lincoln imagineers visited every Presidential museum before they built this place, and asked: What should we do? They received the same two answers: 1) make sure to have enough room for tourists, and 2) "feature a gift shop very prominently."
The result is 100,000 square feet of museum that has two 4-D theaters and very little to read. Giant paintings along the walls are crisply rendered in easy-to-get 19th century realism, with only a sly nod to modernity by (allegedly) incorporating some faces of museum funding officials and their relatives. There are relatively few genuine artifacts, which is understandable given that relics such as Lincoln's Death Chair were claimed long ago by other museums. His bloodstained gloves are displayed in this museum's "Treasures Gallery," and a doorknob from his house, too, but maybe we just missed some of the better stuff....
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum opens into a large atrium where visitors are encouraged to "pose with the Lincolns" -- wax dummies of the First Family that stand in the middle of the floor -- a photo op that's more Madame Tussauds than Disney (without the butt-pinching blush response). "They're specifically made with a certain coating," David told us, "so when you photograph them next to real people, they look like real people."
Behind the Lincolns, on a replica of the White House portico, are an eclectic mix of historical characters, including Ulysses S. Grant, Sojourner Truth, and John Wilkes Booth. "It's like he's preparing for a role," David said of Booth, who seems to be watching Lincoln and his family. Booth was well-known in the 1860s as an unstable actor before he became an unstable presidential assassin. "He was the Tom Cruise of his day."
The museum winds its way through Lincoln's imagineered life. The wax likeness of 9-year-old Abe was "reverse engineered," according to David, because there are no images of him as a boy. David was also excited about the fake trees surrounding the replica Lincoln log cabin, which have individual vinyl leaves and trunks made from molds of real trees found in southern Illinois. "When we make it authentic," David said, "we make it authentic."
A diorama of a Slave Auction is accompanied by sad music, and the slaves are lit like real people while the dummy auctioneer is ominously lit from below in red, like the Devil. Dummy Abe sprawls reading on a couch in his recreated Illinois law office while his dummy sons are frozen in boyish hijinks, trashing the place. In spite of the "chaos," every diorama and scene is lit-by-design and picture-perfect -- though no visitor snapshots are allowed in these galleries.
The effects really kick in once the Lincolns reach the White House. The "Whispering Gallery" is a political cartoon funhouse, with crazy angles meant to reinforce the "distorted reality" of Lincoln's accusers. The stove in the replica White House Kitchen is real (the museum bought it on eBay) and it's kept warm to the touch -- one of the few things in the museum that won't trigger a silent alarm (and guards) if you put your finger on it for more than five seconds.
The museum reaches its imagineering apex in The Hallway of Screaming Heads (our name, not the museum's), where you must walk past holo-projected actors in period costume as they nag a Lincoln dummy for jobs and political patronage. Behind Abe, two giant shadow people argue the merits of Emancipation. It's a Disney version of a German expressionist judgment scene, with a little kabuki theater thrown in.
The "Civil War in Four Minutes" theater recalibrates America's four-year bloodbath into a cup-of-coffee time span, and the Electronic Map (a nod to Gettysburg's old Electric Map) runs an impressive Odometer of Death that whizzes casualty totals upward with each passing second.
A cyclorama-style painting titled "The Tide Turns" recalls the happy events of early 1865, and one can imagine tired old Abe saying, "Hey, let's go see a show!" But there's John Wilkes Booth again, lurking in the painting's corner, next to a doorway in the museum marked "Ford's Theater." Inside, a diorama depicts the moment when Booth entered the Lincoln box, and the imagineers tastefully leave it there. The next room reproduces Lincoln's casket (which can be seen elsewhere in Springfield as well) surrounded by floral tributes and the same music that made you sad at the Slave Auction.
From here, visitors can go back out to the pose-with-the-Lincolns, or to the two 4-D theater shows, or to the kids room (with its abundance of Lincoln Logs), or to the very prominently featured gift shop, where one can buy stovepipe hats and Lincoln grabbers and Lincoln branded water for prices higher than at other Illinois Lincoln attractions.
"George W. Bush walked through here," David said, "and when he left he said, 'I'm gonna send my people here to learn how we should do my museum!'"