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Histrionics And History

Lincoln Library's High-Tech Exhibits Have Scholars Choosing Sides

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 15, 2005; Page C01


The ghosts are working, but something's gone badly wrong with the battle scene.

It's crunch time at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, where gee-whiz theme-park technology is supposed to be meeting serious history. Three months before the museum's April opening, the team from BRC Imagination Arts -- a California-based purveyor of "innovative and immersive experience-based attractions" that's been hired to create and install all of the museum's content -- is rehearsing a theatrical presentation called "Ghosts of the Library."

At the Lincoln library, Bob Rogers, left, founder and chairman of BRC Imagination Arts, and Illinois State Historian Thomas Schwartz examine a Holavision "ghost" of the president. (Kristen Schmid - For The Washington Post)

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Performed on a book-lined set that looks like an old-fashioned archive, the show employs a form of trademarked technical wizardry that BRC calls Holavision to create spectral figures from Lincoln's life and times. Shimmering and translucent, they share the stage with a live actor playing the host. The idea is for "Ghosts" to wow visitors with these otherworldly effects while simultaneously explaining why the study of the past is worthwhile.

"This library is filled with items that, well, they're almost like buried treasure," the host says. "Take this deed, for example." As he holds it up for examination, ghostly images of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln materialize nearby. The deed is for the grave site of their 4-year-old son, Eddie, "who died in the Lincolns' home just a few blocks from where you are sitting right now."

Early in the show, as the host reads from a soldier's diary, a smoky scene of Holavision combat streams from its pages. Later, as he clutches a copy of the Gettysburg Address, a ghostly quill inscribes the words on the air. Now, as the climax approaches, he dons a blue uniform coat and gestures toward a tattered Stars and Stripes framed on the wall behind him.

"You see that flag?" he says. "It's my favorite item from this collection: the regimental flag from the 33d Illinois. That flag was with us on June 22, 1863, when we were down in Mississippi at a town called Vicksburg."

The flag begins to wave. Martial choral music swells. Suddenly the whole back wall goes blank.

"Whoops," says one of the tech guys.

A computer has misfired, ruining the transition to a scene of dead Union soldiers sprawled by a split-rail fence. It's a small problem, easily fixed. Yet it seems to symbolize the high-stakes bet the Lincoln Museum has made on BRC's "experience-based" approach.

Museum officials say they're blending scholarship and showmanship on a scale never attempted before, without undermining the accuracy of the history they present. If they succeed, they contend, museums all over the world will imitate them. If they fail, they know -- because it's started to happen already -- they'll be savaged for Disneyfying the past.

Trial by Holavision, you might call it -- and the jury is still out.

"I'm going to do a quick reboot," the tech guy says.

'Maybe a Shotgun Marriage'

Rebooting -- or more precisely, reprogramming -- is exactly what BRC is trying to do to the traditional museum exhibit. There's a lot riding on this attempt, not just for the company and its Illinois client, but for historical sites like Mount Vernon, which has announced that it will expand and reshape its presentation of George Washington within the next couple of years, and for venerable museums like those at the Smithsonian Institution, which have concerns about attracting the next generation of visitors.

You could also argue -- as does the Lincoln Museum's director, Richard Norton Smith -- that in a democracy where young people's knowledge of history is shrinking, there is something even larger at stake. "In an era when it's easy to despair about historical illiteracy," Smith says, "this is an experiment attacking historical illiteracy."

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