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Histrionics And History

The humanizing effort also involved a search for what BRC people call an "emotional through-line." The storytellers came up with the idea of Lincoln as Job: a good man tested by a series of inexplicable disasters. Among these were his mother's early death, the deaths of two of his children, a difficult marriage, and the soul-searing trials of the Civil War.

The academic historians weren't consulted about this conceit, and they don't buy it. This was a man who accomplished remarkable things, they say, and the early deaths of his mother and his children, while surely painful, were hardly unusual in the 19th century. "That diminishes Lincoln, to make that unfortunate and reaching comparison," says Goucher College historian Jean Baker, who wasn't on the initial concept committee but later reviewed museum scripts.


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, Baker found herself impressed by the overall consultation process. A biographer of Mary Todd Lincoln who wanted to make sure the president's much-maligned wife got a fair shake, she came away "entirely satisfied" with the attention paid to her views.

Meanwhile, some historians were calling another, more serious "through-line" to BRC's attention. It's an obvious one, but Rogers credits Richard Norton Smith, in particular, with bringing it into sharper focus for his team.

The Lincoln story is all about slavery and race, Smith told them. The museum will be judged by how it deals with those things.

'Was the War About Slavery?'

"Lincoln was no friend of the black man. His Emancipation Proclamation freed no one. Just look at the map!"

An image of the black abolitionist John Rock appears on the center screen in the Union Theater, where BRC staffers are previewing the museum's second big theatrical production, "Lincoln's Eyes." Rock's role is to question the Great Emancipator's motives. His sentiments are real, but the voice-over's language is that of a scriptwriter.

Look at the Confederate states, he continues, as a colorful map of the divided nation replaces his angry face: No slaves freed there, because Lincoln didn't control them. Look at the northern states: No slaves freed there, because there were none. Look, finally, at the slaveholding border states still loyal to the Union: No slaves freed there, because Lincoln exempted those states, fearing they would secede if he didn't.

"The Emancipation Proclamation was a slick but empty trick by a cynical politician," Rock adds.

"No matter what Lincoln did, somebody didn't like it," the narrator says.

After Rock comes Chief Justice Roger Taney, who calls emancipation unconstitutional. More voices follow, including that of Frederick Douglass -- a black abolitionist far more influential than Rock -- who inclines toward giving the president the benefit of the doubt. On-screen as Douglass speaks are two Lincolns, one wearing horns, another equipped with a halo.

A bit crude, perhaps -- but the complexity of Lincoln's positions on slavery and race are not easy to get across. This is part of what makes him feel so contemporary. "The metaphor of Lincoln as someone whose real achievement was in outgrowing the racist culture that produced him," Smith says, represents "what America would like to think of itself" today.

No, the complexity isn't easy to deal with, but you can see that the museum is trying. Take the interactive display called "Ask Mr. Lincoln," in which visitors can choose from a range of questions that get answered in Lincoln's own words, with context added by state historian Schwartz. One is "Was the war about slavery or about Union?" In his answer, Schwartz parses a much-misquoted letter Lincoln wrote on the subject, underlining its internal contradictions.

"You decide," the historian concludes.

BRC has been trying to get slavery right all along. Well before Smith made his how-the-museum-will-be-judged pronouncement, the advisory committee was talking about how best to introduce the subject. An early notion had been to focus visitors' attention on a famous photograph of an escaped slave with a horrifically scarred back. Then Howard University historian Edna Greene Medford argued that slavery's horrors "were both psychological and physical, and we needed to convey that." The planners switched gears and highlighted a diorama of a slave auction instead.


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