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Histrionics And History

Sometimes BRC seemed downright fanatical about getting important details right. For example, BRC researcher Darroch Greer spent months researching Civil War casualty figures for a small display called "The Civil War in Four Minutes" -- an electronic map that shows shifting battle lines and includes an odometer-like device showing how the casualties mounted week by week. University of Virginia historian Gary Gallagher calls Greer's work "a valuable discussion of the topic."

Yet showmanship sometimes trumped historical precision.


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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There are those modernized campaign commercials: Exhibit planners are still debating whether there should be signage explaining that there was no television in 1860.

And, of course, there are those hard-working Holavision ghosts.

'That Flag Was With Us'

The Lincoln Museum's impact will be "huge," says James C. Rees, executive director of Mount Vernon. When it opens, Rees believes, museum people from all over the country -- not to mention tourism officials from cities that, like Springfield, think they have some history to sell -- will descend on BRC's creation. They'll be looking to see if the showmanship-meets-scholarship approach really works.

And what better place to start than "Ghosts of the Library"?

The reboot is over now, and the BRC crew takes the show from the top. Early on, the actor playing the host raises the ultimate taboo question for a history museum. "Why study all this old stuff? Who cares?" he asks, as if channeling an audience of restless middle schoolers.

One answer is: Way cool ghosts. There's a boom, crack of thunder and lightning and the first batch briefly flicker into view.

But there are more serious answers as well.

The host explains that historians discover new things all the time. What if someone's secret diary turns up, or a batch of Mary Lincoln's letters? Her son Robert burned the ones he could lay his hands on, but you never know. By preserving and studying such things, the host says, "we create our own experience of those times, as if we had been there with them, long ago."

So far, "Ghosts" appears to be just as Rogers describes it: an unprecedented attempt to use D-word showmanship to explain why history is important -- and more specifically, to explain why we need that fancy library across the street, with its climate-controlled stash of diaries and deeds and its priceless Gettysburg Address, written out in Lincoln's hand.

Here comes the climax, again.

"You see that flag?" the host 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."

Cue the music, cue the battle scene, which comes in just fine this time. Cue the actor's transformation from host to uniformed soldier. "I was a proud member of the 33d, and I carried that flag into battle," he says.

Whoops.

In fact, the artificially tattered Stars and Stripes he's pointing at is not the flag of the 33d Illinois. It's not any other regiment's flag either, and it's not even a replica of anything from the Lincoln Library's collection. Regimental flags, Rogers explains later, often looked more like state flags, and "it's hard to get emotional about a flag with some strange logo on it that you've never seen."

He seems unconcerned that the centerpiece of his story about why the past should be preserved isn't real. "If we can add other emotional elements, such as patriotism, to help connect people to history, then why the heck not?" he says.

Then Rogers makes a point with which even the harshest critics and staunchest boosters of the museum's historical high-wire act could agree:

"History," he says, "is too important to be left in the past."


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