The new Abraham Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Ill., allows visitors a fleeting moment of frivolity. Just inside the marble lobby, families can pose with reenactors of Abe -- scruffy beard, black top hat and all -- and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, in long gown and bonnet. Then the Disney Moment is over.
What follows at the $90.1 million complex is an emotional total immersion, augmented by a mix of jolting images and high-tech presentations, into the world of one of the most complex figures in American history.
Some displays are wrenching, such as the lifelike statues of a slave family being auctioned on a block. By the account of historians, such a scene was probably glimpsed by 19-year-old Lincoln during a Mississippi riverboat trip down South. The wife is being sold one way and the husband another, while a little boy tugs on his mother's skirt. The point, a guide explained, is to dramatize the psychological horrors of slavery, an issue that would hang heavy over Lincoln for life.
Other exhibits -- such as the replica of Lincoln's law office, depicting the young father in stockinged feet with his head buried in a newspaper, oblivious to his two young sons wreaking havoc nearby -- give a rare human dimension to an often exalted figure.
Taken together, the re-created historical episodes, multimedia shows and memorabilia spread throughout the 100,000-square-foot complex offer an intriguing close-up look at the man who taught himself to read, became the 16th U.S. president, led the nation through four years of bloody war, emancipated slaves and saved the Union.
It has been more than two months since the museum opened in the small, slow-paced Illinois capital where Lincoln worked as a lawyer and provincial politician, and the steady flow of schoolkids, retirees and other visitors streaming through testifies to its popularity. The place easily holds enough material to keep a casual traveler's attention for the better part of a day. And if it whets your interest, side excursions to other Lincoln heritage sights in and around the city -- Lincoln's home, his old law office, the Old State Capitol building where he served as legislator and his tomb in nearby Oak Ridge Cemetery -- are easily available. Signposts throughout the museum refer to other locales on the Lincoln trail.
In some ways the museum, coupled with the more austere Lincoln Presidential Library across the street (which opened in October), is like an indoor theme park. In the 15-minute film "Ghosts of the Library," best seen at the start of a visit, a holographic man appears and raves about the fascinating people and information that emerge when you start digging around historical archives. In the end, after acknowledging that he was a soldier in the decisive 1863 Civil War Battle of Vicksburg, he fades away like a figure in a dream.
"Lincoln's Eyes," a 17-minute special-effects presentation, makes for good viewing after the film. In it, smoke rings billow through the audience and seats shake to dramatize the onset of the Civil War.
Following the two shows, visitors should be ready to take in the museum's two major galleries. The first, concentrating on Lincoln's early years, features life-size images of him, Mary Todd and key figures in their lives. There's the adolescent Abe, reading by the light of an open fire; the lanky young man sitting nervously in a parlor next to Mary; the pensive lawyer standing beside Stephen A. Douglas during the stormy debates of their 1858 senatorial battle.
The second major gallery features highlights from the lives of Lincoln and Mary after his election to the presidency. Visitors are ushered into a mock Blue Room of the White House, where Mary is being fitted with a ball gown. Later they pass a scene of an 1862 Cabinet meeting, where the topic is the legal implications of freeing slaves. Eventually, they pass through a solemn room with a flower-covered casket where the assassinated Lincoln lies in state. Although there are no guided tours, docents are available to offer explanations.
History buffs drawn to artifacts, original documents or detailed explanations of events may be disappointed. In the Treasures Gallery, only a few historical relics are shown. Among them: Lincoln's original handwritten Gettysburg Address, a signed copy of the Declaration of Independence, Mary Todd's music box and some of the Lincolns' dishes and other household effects. Although the State of Illinois owns thousands of such pieces, a relative handful are showcased here.
The video-era museum-goer, however, is well served by the displays. In one, "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert appears in a mock simultaneous broadcast on three television screens commentating on the contemporary advertisements of the four candidates who faced off in the 1860 presidential race, which Lincoln ultimately won. In modern journalistic parlance, Russert captures the essence of the election and handicaps the candidates. This is "the most dangerously regional and divisive election in America's history," he concludes. "What a mess!" Some purists may be put off by the contemporary method of recounting a race that occurred long before the age of television.
But Richard Norton Smith, the library's executive director, batted back criticisms that the presentations are too Hollywood and schlocky for such serious subject matter. "There is an awful lot of information about a complicated election presented in that display," he said in an interview. "And it's presented in a way that a television-age audience can grasp."
The War Gallery is equally effective. On one wall, a map of the United States is projected, with the sites of the major battles of the war lighting up every few seconds. A running tally of the casualties on both the Union and the Confederate sides flashes on an "odometer of death" in the right-hand corner.
The theme of slavery emerges in most of the presentations, often in unpredictable ways. In the Union Theater's "Lincoln's Eyes," abolitionists are depicted criticizing Lincoln's stance on slavery as a political gesture that overlooked the practice in states such as Kentucky that were friendly to the Union. In another display, African American contemporaries of Lincoln offer different views on how they might fare after emancipation.
In the Whispering Gallery, an eerie corridor, the walls are covered with caricatures of Lincoln as a monkey, Satan or worse, all taken from newspapers soon after his 1860 election. Personal slurs about him, centering on his favoritism of "Negroes," are everywhere. That honest public portrayal alone makes the Abraham Lincoln Museum worth the trip.