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Lincoln Museum to Use Newest Technology to Bring 16th President to Life

  • Kavita Cardoza

The life of Abraham Lincoln - one of America's greatest presidents -- will soon be presented in a way never seen before. A revolutionary new museum is set to open this April in Springfield, Illinois, the capital of Mr. Lincoln's home state. Along with traditional displays of photographs and documents, visitors to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum will encounter disembodied voices and faces that will bring to life the turbulent decades of the mid-1800s.

For now, the clang of hammers and the buzz of saws echo through the empty museum hallways, and dust motes sparkle in the shafts of sunlight streaming through the windows of the lobby rotunda. But the blank walls and construction noise don't faze the museum's executive director, Richard Norton Smith. He sees what the museum will look like when it opens -- when visitors can explore what he calls "the totality of Lincoln's life."

The journey begins in a real log cabin, like the one Abraham Lincoln lived in as a child. "If you work with most exhibit designers and you say, 'Give me a log cabin,' you'd get a Styrofoam log cabin," said Mr. Smith, as he gestured toward his museum's nearly-complete exhibit. "This is a 200-year-old frame dwelling that was located in Virginia, taken apart, and put back together to create the Lincoln's Indiana home."

But most of the museum is more 21st century than 19th. A modern television newsroom will broadcast campaign commercials promoting Mr. Lincoln and the opponents who ran against him for the Presidency. That is, visitors will view what their campaigns might have produced if there had been television in 1860. Children can also use an interactive computer to ask President Lincoln questions … and then get the answers. And what appear to be ghosts talking about the past will materialize out of nowhere.

The Disney-like feel has been controversial. But Mr. Smith says you can combine scholarship and showmanship -- in fact, you should. "I think any good history engages a reader, a viewer, a participant, a visitor on more than one level," he argued. "In a nutshell, we're using 21st century technology to recreate the 19th century in way that will be credible and memorable."

Mr. Smith is also trying to humanize President Lincoln and his family. Visitors will see the young Lincoln as he encounters a slave auction, watch as he courts Mary Todd in the parlor of her home in Springfield, and share Mrs. Lincoln's grief as their little son lies in his bedroom at the White House, dying of typhoid.

But the museum will not be a shrine to the 16th president. The object is to give visitors an understanding of what Mr. Lincoln's critics as well as his supporters had to say about him. "You will get a sense of what people living in the spring of 1861 might have been feeling, might have been saying, might have been shouting, as their country came apart at the seams," said Museum Director Richard Norton Smith.

By early 1861, several southern states had seceded, and the nation was moving closer to civil war. "You will not only hear the voices -- sometimes strident voices -- on both sides of this issue," said Mr. Smith, "but you will actually see the faces of those people coming at you out of dark." He predicts that the exhibit could be disturbing for some people, adding, "deservedly so."

Fighting between the Confederate states of the South and Union forces from the North began in April 1861. In one room of the museum, visitors can track the battles of the Civil War on a huge electronic map. "You can follow the movement of both armies over those four years," Mr. Smith says, pointing to the lower right-hand corner, where an "odometer of death" keeps count of fallen soldiers.

By the time the Civil War ended with the surrender of southern forces on April 9, 1865, that odometer would have passed 600,000. Less than a week later, the conflict claimed another casualty. A southern sympathizer shot and killed President Lincoln as he and Mrs. Lincoln watched a play in Washington, D.C. In the museum's replica of the Ford Theatre box, visitors will see the couple just before the fatal shot.

One of the most effective uses of technology can be found in the Ghosts of the Library Theater. The exhibition combines live actors and holograms. "There's a file cabinet that will open," Mr. Smith explained. "A document will appear, it will turn into Civil War soldiers -- three-dimensional [figures] who will tell their stories." In addition, the Lincolns will appear as ghosts.

Richard Norton Smith expects the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum to have a tremendous effect on visitors. "It's a marvelous way to impart to young people, why does history matter…why do we save all this stuff…what's the point of all these old papers?" That, he said, "is the point of the entire museum."