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Lincoln scholars agree: Museum worth the visit

Last Monday, Brian Lamb, founder of C-SPAN, put three Lincoln scholars on the spot.

As David Herbert Donald, Harold Holzer and Matthew Pinsker faced C-SPAN's cameras, which were filming the wrap-up session of a two-day scholarly conference on Lincoln that coincided with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum dedication events, Lamb asked them what they thought of the museum.

"Best that I've ever seen," Donald said.

"Astounded," Pinsker added.

Holzer said that Richard Norton Smith, the museum's director, delivered on his promise to marry "showmanship and scholarship."

Lamb then asked them what they didn't like.

The three scholars, speaking at the Lincoln Presidential Library, weren't about to ruin Springfield's parade on the eve of the museum’s dedication.

Still, being historians, they had something to say.

Donald said he wished the figures of Mary were “pleasanter,” in keeping with her rounded and prettier features. Holzer regretted that, in the “Lincoln’s Eyes” show, there was no rebuttal to abolitionists’ claims that the Emancipation Proclamation freed no slave. Pinsker said the museum gave short shrift to Lincoln’s emerging political career during the 1850s.

Other scholars at the conference provided their own input: the figures are “a mixed bag,” more information should be been provided on the battle of Gettysburg and Lincoln’s subsequent address, and there are too few artifacts. The list goes on.

But few of the scholarly comments pointed out fundamental flaws in the museum’s portrayal of history. The historians’ views were overwhelmingly positive.

“I liked it. I thought it was great fun,” Holzer said.

“Well, does the museum work?” reflected Lincoln scholar and collector Frank J. Williams, the chief justice of Rhode Island’s Supreme Court. “I think so. There’s something for everyone.”

State historian Tom Schwartz, who oversaw practically all of the museum’s content, says what is in the museum is not carved in stone.

Explanatory plaques always can be added or revised - and will be as more and more feedback is provided, he says.

For starters, a number of plans are under way to beef up the amount of information provided at the museum.

Schwartz says there are discussions to offer recorded in-depth audio tours by Smith. Schwartz and Phillip Paludan, a Lincoln and Civil War scholar at the University of Illinois at Springfield, are working on adding a series of plaques throughout the museum that will highlight various scholarly debates about Lincoln and his times.

Currently, the “Learn More” plaques throughout the museum recommend the same 11 books. Those will be replaced by reading lists that match the subject matter of each exhibit. Museum volunteers are being trained to offer more information and are being encouraged to read up on areas in the museum that interest them.

Then there’s the temporary exhibit, “Blood on the Moon,” a probing examination of Lincoln’s assassination that appears to offers as much text as the rest of the museum put together.

Still, Schwartz says, so much material is available on Lincoln’s life that it’s not possible to offer a thorough explanation of everything.

“The museum is not a classroom,” Schwartz says. “The goal is to make Lincoln accessible. You can’t shoot above the heads of the audience. Lincoln’s legal practice, for example, doesn’t work in a museum very well - it would work well in an academic conference setting. Neither would Lincoln’s humor.”

There’s a big difference between telling a joke and trying to explain why it’s funny, Schwartz says.

“But I plead guilty,” Schwartz says. “We could’ve done more. All of these (concerns) are valid - if the museum was twice the size.”

The press has not been as kind as the scholars.

The Chicago Tribune has printed a couple of articles blasting the museum’s architecture and exhibits. The Washington Post and The New York Times have been critical, too. Times reporter Edward Rothstein summed up his concerns by writing, “(in the museum) Lincoln remains an icon: The Suffering Servant of the Union, a martyr for the cause of equality. Complications are shunted aside for a series of psychodramas.”

Rothstein and others also have criticized exhibits and shows at the museum that paraphrase statements by historical figures.

The media criticisms tend to target the museum’s whole approach to storytelling, whether paraphrasing and putting words in mouths of historical characters for the sake of simplicity or whether tweaking an exhibit for its emotional impact.

Rothstein points to the “Lincoln’s Eyes” show, a short biographical presentation on Lincoln. During the climactic assassination scene, the show stops short of Booth exclaiming “Sic semper tyrannis!” as he jumps from the balcony at Ford’s Theatre after having shot Lincoln.

The words were omitted partly because of concern that audiences would not understand the Latin phrase, which means “thus always to tyrants” and is the motto of Virginia. But counter to what Rothstein’s review implies, the assassination episode in the show stops short of Booth leaping onto the stage anyway.

But simplification is an accepted practice among historians, according to the American Historical Association, the main professional society for 15,000 historians in universities and museums.

The AHA’s Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct states that “Public discussions of complex historical questions inevitably translate and simplify many technical details.”

By their nature, museums, like documentaries, are interpretative, Schwartz says. There’s not enough source material to fill in every blank.

In the case of Booth, simplification makes sense, Schwartz says. During “Lincoln’s Eyes,” a shadowy Booth spews his hatred of Lincoln. The words are made up, but Schwartz says Booth’s actual words would require too much annotation, which would either ruin the narration or add too much time to the show.

“Booth sent a letter to the National Intelligencer to explain his act,” Schwartz explains. “It’s all cloaked in a language of classicist republicanism. It wasn’t direct. It was indirect. There are literary allusions. Unless you understand (Shakespeare’s) ‘Julius Caesar,’ it’s hard to understand.”

“When most scholars went through (the museum during the academic conference), they were pleasantly surprised,” he said. Its methods are “nothing they wouldn’t do in their lectures.”

Critics continue to spot nitpicking anachronisms, but Schwartz handles them well.

The museum’s White House kitchen, for example, is based on an 1890s-era photo from the Benjamin Harrison administration. The photo is included in the exhibit.

“There is nothing to suggest that a major functional change or remodeling occurred in the kitchen (between the Lincoln and Harrison administrations),” says Schwartz. To back this up, the photo shows an 1859 model stove. The museum found the same model and restored it for the exhibit.

Another is the closed casket in the Lincoln funeral scene. A photo in the exhibit demonstrates the casket was open, but museum officials say even the advising historians recommended keeping it closed.

“I’ll be honest,” Schwartz says. “Most of those decisions as to what to show and what not to show are from questions from over two decades from the public.”

For the funeral scene, Schwartz says it’s very difficult to visit the Old State Capitol, a few blocks from the museum, and envision what it would have looked like draped from ceiling to floor in black mourning drapes during Lincoln’s funeral there in 1865.

“It’s been a big disconnect,” he says. “But for the first time, they can see what it’s like. People come into that room talking and then there are hushed tones. They shut up. It’s a huge emotional scene, even for the cynics. Some cry.”

It was emotional back in 1865, too. Schwartz says that’s the point.

The funeral scene isn’t the last in the museum. There’s one more thing to pass - an exhibit case of artifacts, one of dozens throughout the building.

This case shows some of the items people lifted from the White House and other Lincoln sites after his death. Pieces of Lincoln’s life were taken because people had a hard time letting go. It also marks the beginning of Lincoln the myth, a historic phenomenon the museum does its best to challenge.

“I don’t know how else you end the story,” Schwartz says.

Pete Sherman can be contacted at 788-1539 or pete.sherman@sj-r.com.

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