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Invading Lincoln's Space

COLUMN ONE

Creators of a high-tech presidential museum want to 'grab you by the heart' in unorthodox ways. Don't expect a sentimental journey.

April 16, 2005|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum opens today with a silicone Lincoln posing in the rotunda and pundit Tim Russert introducing mock TV attack ads from the campaign of 1860.

In the Union Theater, an abolitionist roars "Lincoln was no friend of the black man" as hologram cannons boom to signal the start of the Civil War. Strobe lights flash; the plush seats jerk and rumble like a ride at Universal Studios. When Atlanta burns, the air feels hot.

This is history, Hollywood style: A $90-million look at Honest Abe's life and times -- with special effects created by Stan Winston Studios, the wizards behind Jurassic Park and Terminator 3.

Some call it the model of a 21st century museum. Others call it schlock.

"Abraham Lincoln is treated like Paul Bunyan or Betty Crocker, like a commercial hoax, a do-good invention of the Springfield Tourism Bureau," said John Y. Simon, a historian at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. "They don't need to shake your seat to scare you about the Civil War." Ronald Rietveld, a Lincoln scholar at Cal State Fullerton, countered: "To attract today's generation, glass boxes and yellow labels may not be enough."

The museum's collection of artifacts includes so many treasures that a few glass display cases were inevitable. But the 50,000 square feet of gallery space is mostly given over to more showy exhibits.

Visitors walk through 12 life-size theatrical sets, some with soundtracks, that trace Lincoln's life from the dim, cramped cabin of his boyhood to the splendor and sorrow of his White House years. Two multimedia shows explore the president's legacy with a striking blend of historic photos, ghostly holograms and an actor. A four-minute animated graphic captures the Civil War's shifting frontline -- and mounting body count.

And in the "Illusion Corridor," visitors walk past holograms of disembodied faces, each of them shouting an angry, often racist, opinion about slavery, Lincoln or the war. The historians who advised the museum's designers were adamant that the language be full of fury, even at the risk of offending visitors. "We needed to put Lincoln in his own time," Rietveld said.

Honoring a president who's been dead 140 years gave exhibit designers a certain amount of freedom.

There were no relatives to object that it was unseemly to portray the future president sprawled across a couch, his suit rumpled and his hair a mess, as he courted the prim (and disapproving) Mary Todd. There were no White House loyalists around to protest an exhibit suggesting that Lincoln may have freed the slaves more to weaken the South than to advance the cause of human liberty.

Museum mastermind Bob Rogers, chairman of BRC Imagination Arts in Burbank, said his goal was to "knock Lincoln off his pedestal" -- to make visitors see him as a man, not a myth. So these exhibits acknowledge their hero's flaws more directly than most presidential museums dare.

The first placard visitors encounter describes Lincoln as "a teller of vulgar stories" and "a negligent spouse" as well as a courageous leader. Another gallery displays newspaper articles from the 1860s; nearly all of them damn Lincoln, calling him a "perjured traitor" "vain, weak, sterile" and "an awful, woeful ass." The catty women of Washington high society whisper -- through piped-in voices -- about Mary Todd Lincoln's scandalous dresses, so low-cut they reveal her "milking apparatus."

"When you walk through these galleries, you are Lincoln. You are seeing the world through his eyes," Rogers said.

Though renowned the world over for his oratory, Lincoln remains silent throughout these galleries, as befits a "hero of the screen," Rogers said. "Think of a great Clint Eastwood character."

Placards and wall text explain Lincoln's views on issues such as slavery and the limits of presidential power. But the stage sets are so riveting, it's easy to overlook the words.

Rogers doesn't mind. He built his reputation creating attractions for theme parks, including Disney's Epcot, Disney-MGM Studios and Knott's Berry Farm. Lately, he's done more work for museums. But he's stuck to his mantras: "Visual before verbal. Emotional before intellectual."

He doesn't believe that much text is needed in a stage set like the one that replicates Lincoln's vigil by his son Willie's deathbed in the White House. Or the one that re-creates the old Illinois Capitol rotunda where Lincoln's body lay in state; it's so realistic, visitors who walk through invariably lower their voices to a reverential whisper.

"Walk into a scene," Rogers promised, "and it'll grab you by the heart."

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