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Histrionics And History

The idea is to hook kids on Lincoln and send them home wanting to learn more.

Smith, a historian who has headed a number of presidential libraries, is a latecomer to this exhibit design process. He became director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in December 2003, five years after BRC started work on the museum. The library component -- which is across the street and which houses not only the state's 47,000 Lincoln-related documents and objects but also a broader Illinois history collection -- opened last October, and Smith doesn't want anyone to forget what a resource it is for scholars.


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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Still, he fully endorses the scholarship/showmanship mix.

"People have just got to stop thinking in terms of either/or," he says. What makes the new museum worth emulating is that "there really is a marriage -- maybe a shotgun marriage, but a marriage that I think is growing into a happy marriage" -- between the two.

Bob Rogers, BRC's founder and chairman, makes the same point with a Venn diagram. He draws two circles, labeled "scholarship" and "showmanship," on a sheet of yellow paper. The circles overlap, but only slightly. That tiny slice of shared space, he says, is where the museum needs to be.

Rogers is a cheerful, energetic man of 54 who wears khakis and black Rockports and has been accurately described as "a great talker." His company has created "experiences" for NASA, Knott's Berry Farm, the Texas State History Museum, world's fairs and corporations -- among them the Ford Rouge Factory Tour in Dearborn, Mich., designed to "emotionally engage visitors in the Ford Motor Company's culture, history, and brand." Last month, the company won a contract to upgrade the tourist experience at the Empire State Building.

BRC traces its lineage in a direct line from Walt Disney Imagineering, where Rogers worked before going out on his own in 1981. He's proud of his work for Disney, but doesn't go out of his way to mention it around scholars, preferring to emphasize the museum's need to tell a story. Once some people hear "the D word," he says, "they won't hear anything else."

His Disney connection, however, may have been a plus to the leadership of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, which had been pushing for many years to build the top-notch library and museum Lincoln has never had. For one thing, the IHPA people needed to sell their project as a tourist attraction that could help hold visitors in Springfield overnight.

By 1998, after a long struggle for local, state and federal funds, they were finally in a position to hire an exhibit designer. They did this first, before hiring an architect, so that the visitor experience would have priority in the overall design. BRC was chosen over, among others, Ralph Appelbaum Associates, the acclaimed firm behind the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The price was high: The combined library and museum project cost $115 million (not counting $35 million more for parking and a nearby visitor center), of which $90 million has gone to the museum, with roughly $54 million, according to Rogers, paid to BRC.

Rogers knew he had to get Lincoln scholars involved right away. With the help of Illinois State Historian Thomas Schwartz, who has been the chief historical consultant on every aspect of the project, BRC put together an advisory committee that included five academic historians, a number of state historians and, at BRC's request, three classroom teachers, one each from elementary, middle and high schools. Working with Rogers and BRC staffers, the committee set out to draw up guidelines for the museum's content.

The meetings were intense. The BRC people would toss out a creative idea, recalls middle school teacher Bill Ulmer, "and the historians would say: Wait a minute, you're getting too creative." But while BRC and the scholars may have started from radically different vantage points, Ulmer says, "I was amazed how they respected each other's opinions."

The academic historians agree, looking back, that the process was highly constructive. Another thing they mostly agree on is this:

They thought BRC's crazy idea for explaining the presidential campaign of 1860 really shouldn't be allowed to fly.

'A House Divided'

Cue the chirpy TV news music. Cue the pug-faced anchor. "The chaos of a four-way presidential race continues," Tim Russert intones, coming at you from a wall of video screens in a simulated network control room midway through "The Journey," the museum's main exhibit on Lincoln's life.

Whaaaaat?


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