Looking for Lincoln – Springfield, Illinois

A Museum that Brings Visitors into the Heart of Lincoln Country with Hands-on History that Appeals to the Senses.

History comes to life at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in downtown Springfield — one of more than a dozen central Illinois communities where visitors can journey through the life and times of America’s 16th president, walking in his very footsteps.

Springfield Ill.- The whispers swirl about the White House hallway, sharp voices and back-biting jabs that tear at every aspect of the newly elected president and his wife.

His gaunt frame, craggy face and sunken eyes. His desire to end slavery, his inability to end slavery. His rustic “Western” manners and his portly, free-spending wife, seen by many to be a tactless social climber.

The brutal gossip comes to life in real voices that float through a twisted “whispering gallery,” an unsettling hallway hung with cruel caricatures — Lincoln as an ape, a country bumpkin, a fence-sitter — and political cartoons that actually appeared in the popular press during Lincoln’s early months in office.

Lincoln museumEnduring the barbs was a new role for Lincoln, and a powerful reminder of the challenge before him.

And a vivid lesson it is — just one illustration of the mammoth task that this president faced in winning over a country split by opinions about its next step, its own future.

With critics at all sides, it seems miraculous that anyone could unite a nation in its darkest, most divisive hour. And yet many will argue that is just what Lincoln did.

At the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, the “whispering gallery” is one of many “immersive” exhibits that educate visitors through the senses, with an array of special effects — a mysterious Holavision show that displays the “ghosts of the Lincoln Library,” a theater presentation that allows you to feel the rumble of war in your very bones, an interactive question-answer exhibit that encourages visitors to query Lincoln and receive an answer in his own words, and an “illusion corridor” — featuring a gauntlet of disembodied, dream-like images of people of the day, each telling Lincoln what they think he should do.

It’s history with an edge, a place where centuries of scholarship meet 21st century showmanship and state-of-the-art technology. And it’s attracting crowds that have surpassed all expectations.

The 100,000-square-foot museum opened in 2005 — joining the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library as part of a sprawling Lincoln complex that anchors the corner of Sixth and Jefferson streets in downtown Springfield, a pleasant community with much to offer visitors.

It’s easy to see why. With 40,000 square feet of permanent exhibits, this is twice the size of any existing presidential museum. It’s creative and well done, engaging and emotionally moving.

Rooted in central Illinois, it’s also a must-see stop for anyone venturing through the region and a worthy destination in its own right. But history buffs who make the trek will earn even more for their efforts, thanks to the Looking for Lincoln Heritage Coalition — a network of a dozen regional communities that have joined together to create a “Lincoln experience, “ promoting more then 25 historic sites where Abraham Lincoln lived, worked and loved for 30 years.

Historic sites range from courthouses where the young lawyer argued cases, communities where he studied law and served as a legislator, the only home Lincoln ever owned, a replica of the former state capitol, the Lincoln-Herndon law offices, and the cemetery where the Great Emancipator lies buried.

The Lincoln Experience

The heart of the Lincoln experience lies in Springfield, where museum visitors can venture beyond the museum to take a walking tour through downtown Springfield guided by some 30 “Looking for Lincoln” signs and storyboards displayed throughout the community.

Walk one short block and you’re at the Old State Capitol Historic Site — an exact replica of the building as it was when Lincoln lived and worked in Springfield and the scene of his famous “House Divided” speech. Nearby is the Lincoln-Herndon Law offices and Lincoln’s Home is just blocks away.

But the museum offers the best start to your Lincoln experience. It is easily reached from Interstate 55 via the West Clear Lake Avenue exit. Well-placed signs will direct you straight downtown.

The museum sits to your right, so be sure and plan ahead to veer into the right-hand lane. After you make the turn, proceed ahead one block to find the pay parking garage, which sits on your left between Madison and Mason streets. RV parking is available in a surface lot adjacent to the parking garage.

From the parking garage, it’s an easy walk to the museum itself. Museum staff advises trying to arrive early in the day, especially during peak travel months, as lines can quickly grow long. To save time, you can purchase tickets in advance via the Internet, though there are no discounts for doing it.

Don't ForgetWhile the library charges no admission, the museum charges admission fees. No backpacks or large bags are allowed, and photography is limited to certain exhibits.

Visitors enter a large lobby, which leads to a massive rotunda, a 4,700-square-foot central plaza where you are invited to explore a variety of exhibits, or “journeys.”

To your left, trees filled with birds tower above a modest log cabin — a reproduction of Lincoln’s boyhood home in Kentucky. Enter the cabin and you’ve begun “Journey One,” a trip through time that examines Lincoln’s influential early years, including his first exposure to a New Orleans slave auction, his Springfield law office, the Lincoln-Douglas debates and his trek to Washington, D.C., in 1861.

Back on the plaza, “Journey Two” begins in a massive period-reproduction of the White House during the Lincoln years. A slow amble through its corridors takes you past exhibits featuring Lincoln and his wife at the deathbed of their son, Willie, as dance music wafts from a gala reception; Lincoln keeping daily watch over Civil War casualty counts in the War Department Telegraph Office; the presidential box at Ford’s Theater; and a nearly full-scale reproduction of the House chamber of the Old State Capitol where Lincoln’s casket lay in state, to name only a few.

Interspersed along the way are fascinating relics and high-tech exhibits. Stand still for a few minutes and watch a wall-sized electronic map rapidly track the Civil War’s shifting battle lines as a casualty count spins to over a million fallen American soldiers. The nation’s greatest wartime losses over four years are boiled down to four sobering minutes.

Walk through a replica of the White House kitchen and you can overhear the voices of servants gossiping about Lincoln’s rumored Emancipation Proclamation.

Another exhibit urges you to touch copies of actual bronze castings of Lincoln’s face, one made prior to his election as president in 1860, the other deep into his presidential term, shortly before his assassination in 1865. You can almost feel the weight and anguish worn into his features.

History through Showmanship

A few critics have frowned upon the museum’s penchant for razzle-dazzle presentations.

Some scholars have also taken the museum to task for subtle changes made to original dialogue of the day — alterations made to help enhance public understanding, museum officials insist. They’ve tried hard to put Lincoln’s life within tangible reach of visitors, to go beyond the myths and help us find the man.

And if the drama invites an emotional or controversial response, that’s just fine, officials say.

Lincoln museumIn some ways, they want your response to be uncomfortable, disquieting. And so slavery is depicted in harsh, unflinching images. Lifelike statuary shows an African-American couple being separated at a New Orleans slave auction, their young child a study in raw terror.

The ugliness of racism is portrayed in stark, historic terms — something that may be a little too intense for young children. Most exhibits are designed for children in 4th grade and up, officials advise.

But there is also plenty for young people to find engaging. Two theaters offer multimedia experiences with special effects that may literally leave you gasping in wonder. Another exhibit allows you to watch a contemporary televised portrayal of what the presidential race of 1860 might have looked like today, with 30-second campaign commercials featuring the election’s four candidates.

Small children and families will especially enjoy a trip through Mrs. Lincoln’s Attic, a hands-on exhibit that encourages kids to try on period clothes, build a log cabin with Lincoln logs, try out the chores Lincoln had to do as a child, and examine the books that caused him to fall in love with reading.

And few families can resist the chance to pose for pictures with life-sized rubbery statues of the entire Lincoln family, circa 1860, displayed in the middle of the central plaza.

Throughout the museum, traditional exhibits — the Treasures Gallery, for instance, displays some of Lincoln’s everyday items, from his glasses and shaving mirror to a handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address — are woven with the unexpected — an interactive video exhibit that allows you to ask Lincoln questions.

The journey through Lincoln’s life is both long and engaging. Don’t plan to rush through it; museum staff suggests spending at least two to three hours, and they’re not exaggerating. There are plenty of opportunities to just sit and rest, as well as a cafe and museum store.

If you get through the museum early enough, grab a map of downtown Springfield from the Information Desk and cross the street to check out the Lincoln Presidential Library — a staid institution in comparison to its sparkling cousin, but the seat of important scholarship.

The three-story building holds more than 12 million documents and artifacts concerning all areas of Illinois history and key Lincoln documents that include a signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, a copy of the 13th amendment ending slavery, and the only known photo that showed Lincoln lying in state. Admission is free, but appointments are necessary for actual research.

Once you’ve seen the library and museum, keep ambling down the block and you’ll find restaurants, cafes, shopping and plenty of signage sharing historic tidbits.

A sightseeing trolley is also available to show you the local sites. But it’s worth your time to hop back in your rig and drive to the Lincoln Home Visitor Center, on South Seventh Street, and the Lincoln Tomb State Historic Site, at Oak Ridge Cemetery. A stirring flag ceremony is performed in front of the tomb by a re-enactment of a Civil War infantry unit each Tuesday evening during summer months.

For more information, or to plan your trip, check out www.alplm.org or www.visitspringfieldillnois.com.

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