At museum, all paths lead to Lincoln

Here are excerpts, condensed and edited, from an e-mail interview with Tom Schwartz, the Illinois state historian, about the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill.

Former Disney Imagineers designed the museum in consultation with serious historians. It's easy to argue the good and the bad of an Imagineer-inspired museum. What's your take, now that the museum has been open a while?

There is an assumption in this question that I reject: "Former Disney Imagineers" and "serious historians" as two antagonistic and contrary schools of thought. That was the way some of our early critics framed the issue, and they were wrong. The use of technology serves to underscore and advance the story and not serve in place of the story. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum has done something unique that most museums cannot claim: It has attracted large numbers of people to reconnect with an historical actor and era that engages the senses and excites the imagination.

The tension, when it existed, was that historians love complexity but exhibit design firms are trying to reduce complexity to clear, concise narratives.

From your experience, how has the museum's design affected the way people react to genuine pieces of history when they come to them — the actual Gettysburg Address, for example? Do they know they're seeing the real thing? And does their journey through the museum heighten or blunt the feeling of seeing real, tangible pieces of history before their eyes?

Children generally have a blurred sense between reality and imagination. Most adults have a very clear sense. History is an acquired taste, because it requires empathy and reference to experience: both senses that are developed over time. It is no surprise that we have a better appreciation for history as we get older. Therefore, to expect a child to look at an original copy of the Gettysburg Address and be able to read it, let alone understand what the words mean, and then appreciate that it is authentic, is placing some adult standards on kids. The museum is a nice mix and balance of telling a story that is accessible to kids as well as adults and every age in between.

Once children go through the Journeys and have a sense of Lincoln's life, they can then better understand and appreciate looking at the pen he use to write out presidential speeches, his original stove pipe hat and other "authentic" items. The recreated scenes from Lincoln's life help provide that empathetic bond between a modern visitor and the past. But they also help create the emphatic bond between the visitor and the authentic items. One needs to know the Lincoln story before they truly understand what the authentic items represent. The simple test of "real" vs. recreated is that if something is in a glass case, it is a "real" Lincoln document or artifact. If it isn't in a glass case, it is merely representational.

Bob Rogers, whose company consulted in designing the museum, is quoted in the book Land of Lincoln as saying: "I can give (Abraham Lincoln) to you any way you want, cold or hot, jazz or classical. I can give you scandalous Lincoln, conservative Lincoln, liberal Lincoln, racist Lincoln, Lincoln over easy or Lincoln scrambled." As the Illinois state historian, how do you take your Lincoln?

I take my Lincoln as the historical records present him, fragmented with contradictions. Bob Rogers was merely expressing what historians have long argued: that many interest groups want to enlist Lincoln to their cause and bend the historical record to make him fit; history in an interpretative function. Evidence is often so scant that Lincoln can be argued many different ways. But this is not unique to Lincoln. Almost any historical figure has these problems. If Lincoln's life were socut-and-dried, we would need only one biography of him.

Lincoln's voracious appetite for reading helped him to develop both his ethical and political views and set him apart from the barely literate Western frontier society in which he grew to manhood. Now, some argue, we live in a post-literate society, and indeed the museum reflects that ethic with its emphasis on experiencing and being immersed in Lincoln's milieu rather than reading display card after display card about artifacts. How well is that approach holding up? And is there an irony in limiting the reading in a museum about a man formed, arguably, by what he read?

Lincoln's reading habits changed over time. As a child, he read whatever he could lay his hands on. As an adult, he read mostly work-related materials and newspapers and popular opinion journals. As president, he had little if any time for any leisure reading. When he did, he read the Bible, some Shakespeare and joke books.

So was Lincoln post-literate? Just as the print media changed in Lincoln's day from all text newspapers to the preferred and highly popular "illustrated" journals, this does not mean that people became less literate. Traditional museums relied heavily on text and original materials to tell stories because that was what curators were taught to do.

As the culture around them changed, few museums changed to reflect the new ways people receive and evaluate information. People have many options in how they get information. The museum engages of all the senses people use to understand and evaluate information. The reason why people spend a half a day or more going through the museum is that there is an incredible amount of reading one can do if one so chooses. The sad fact is that most museum visitors get turned off by long text panels.

What we do, and I think do better other museums, is to allow people to engage in the story through multiple senses. Small children are tactile and lean through touch. The (interactive) galleries allow them to touch. Middle and high school kids multitask and use multisensory approaches to acquiring information. Fortysomethings and up are text-based people. It doesn't matter if you first go to the plaque copy to read or you touch, look or listen: Eventually, you will do it all.

At museum, all paths lead to Lincoln 09/25/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 25, 2008 10:20am]

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