Friday, June 25, 2010

Land of Lincoln

Sorry for the lack of posts this week.  I had lots to do and not enough time to do it.  And I had the hay fever/allergy cough that so many people seem to have right now.   But.  Enough whining.

I spent last weekend in beautiful Springfield, Illinois, seasonal home of the Illinois legislature and permanent home of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

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Although I’ve driven through Springfield dozens of times I’ve only stopped in Springfield once for something business related.  I had never seen any of the Lincoln sites.  I’m not sure why.  Most kids from St. Louis get there for a field trip at some point in their school careers.  But I never did.

It turned out to be a great trip.  Springfield is only 90 miles from St. Louis so even accounting for bridge traffic and Friday night rush hour it is an easy trip. The Museum is easy to find, there are signs everywhere and a huge tourist parking garage about a block away.  And the museum?   It is easily one of the best history museums I’ve ever been to.  It has only been open since 2005 so it is a new experience for almost everyone.

I don’t have any photos from inside the museum because they are prohibited except in the “Plaza” area.  The Plaza is the central area from which you enter the various exhibits.  On one side is a replica of the log cabin that Lincoln grew up in and on the other is the facade of the White House.  There are life size Madame Tussaud style figures of Lincoln and his family in the center of the Plaza and visitors stop to take pictures of each other with the Lincoln Family before cameras have to be put away.

The purpose of the Museum is to give the visitor an overview of Lincoln’s life and of the times in which he lived.  It is an entire city block big and it is an interactive museum – state-of-the art doesn’t even begin to describe it.  For instance, one exhibit is a room where the visitors can sit on benches and watch film of a historian answering questions about Lincoln.  The question pops up and then the historian comes on with an answer.  At first I thought this was a nice place to rest while waiting for others.  Then I realized that there was a computer terminal and the visitor could “ask” the questions.  A menu gave categories of questions and lists of questions within every category.   So, for instance, you can ask what Lincoln believed “liberty” meant.  Or any other question that interests you. 

The actual museum is divided into two parts.  For some reason we did them out of order but it didn’t really matter. Part I is entered through the Log Cabin and takes you through the early years of Lincoln’s life.  The museum recreates, for instance, a room in Lincoln’s law office in Springfield to show what it was like.  Like most law offices it was full of piles of papers.  Figures of Lincoln’s sons, Willie and Tad, are shown running wild through the office giving life to the description of Lincoln as being a “permissive” parent.  Lincoln’s courtship of Mary Todd is represented.  The 1860 campaign is represented through a modern media room where Tim Russert is reporting on the campaign as if it is a modern day campaign.  

Part II is entered through the White House facade and took us through the presidential years, the war and Lincoln’s death.  One particularly effective display shows Lincoln standing at his desk contemplating the Emancipation Proclamation.  On the wall behind him you can see shadows coming and going as “people” approach to tell Lincoln what they thought.  And you hear their voices – angry, emphatic.  No one was pleased.  It went too far.  It didn’t go far enough.

The last room in this exhibit is a complete recreation of Representative’s Hall in the Old State Capitol with Lincoln’s casket lying in state as the visitors pass by.  It sounds odd but it is really quite touching and you really do feel as if you are paying your own last respects to him.

There are also two theaters.  One uses holograms to explain why it’s important to study history and especially this history.  This other is a film about Lincoln that uses multiple special effects. 

We had a great time exploring the museum and the best part was that it wasn’t one of those museums where you spend the entire day, end up exhausted and still haven’t seen everything.  We were there about three hours and then we left and went to lunch and do other things. 

For lunch I tried a specialty of Springfield – a Horseshoe Sandwich.  Then it was on to the Old State Capitol:

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Inside there were re-enactors including the “president elect and his wife” who were “accepting visitors”.  Those kinds of things can be cheesy but these actors did a great job and were completely in character the entire time.

We decided to skip the Lincoln Home and the Law Office and go see Springfield’s only Frank Lloyd Wright home instead.  But the next day, before we left for home, we stopped at the cemetery to see the Lincoln Tomb and pet the nose of the Lincoln bust out front for good luck:

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Then it was back home.  But I intend to go back and see that museum again and maybe some of the other historical LIncoln “stuff” that I missed this time.