Located in the heart of Illinois’ capital, Springfield, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is a must visit for anyone in the area. Abraham Lincoln is, perhaps, the United States’ greatest, but also most mysterious, president. The fact that Lincoln was assassinated during what should have been his crowning moment has only added to the aura that surrounds him. While there is plenty of information about Lincoln (the museum says that he is the historical figure that has been written on most, aside from Jesus), the museum is a great way to learn about his life and to see objects related to his history.
The museum has a reasonable admission price, and there are plenty of discounts available to students, AAA members, military personnel, etc. The museum visit begins with a holographic video detailing the importance of the museum and historical methodology, that is, why simple things like scraps of letters or papers can shed new light on Lincoln’s life (or any historical person or event) and why this is important. The video is well done and quite moving, even for those who might not be the most patriotic.
Most of the rest of the museum is a chronology of Lincoln’s life, filled with newspaper headlines, maps, and memorabilia. Visitors begin with a model of Lincoln’s boyhood home, a one room log cabin that shows the inauspicious birth Lincoln had. Visitors then can read about Lincoln’s childhood, such as his trip down the Mississippi and his experience in New Orleans, a time that would change how he looked at slaves. From Lincoln’s childhood, visitors move to his adulthood, when he became a captain in the militia, an Illinois state representative, a lawyer, a US representative, a leader in the new Republican party, and debated Stephen Douglas during the US Senate race.
About half the museum covers Lincoln’s life up to his run for president, while the other half covers the presidential race and the four years Lincoln was in office. Visitors learn about the chain of events that resulted in Lincoln’s rise to the presidency and the subsequent reaction of the southern states. Visitors are able to read headlines and political cartoons from Lincoln’s presidency that illustrate the tumultuous climate of the 1860s. Visitors are able to glimpse Lincoln’s cabinet when Lincoln was preparing the Emancipation Proclamation. Alongside information on Lincoln’s presidency, visitors also get a sense for the broad contours of the Civil War. There were two parts of this half of the museum that really grabbed our attention. First, the museum incorporates the many different opinions of Lincoln while he was in office, which offers a different view of Lincoln than the one that is so often portrayed in history books. Second, in between information about Lincoln’s presidency there was woven the effect of depression on Lincoln and the toll it took on him while he was in office. The sadness of this latter point was exacerbated at the end of the museum when, of course, the exhibit focused on his assassination and the response it generated among the American public.
In addition to the main part of the museum, there is an extra hall with special items associated with Lincoln, including one of his stovepipe hats (which still has wear on it from his fingers when he tipped his hat to passersby), a small children’s room, and a room for special exhibits (it was closed while we visited).
History books too often paint a rosy picture of the past. The Lincoln Museum illustrated a fine balance between honoring Lincoln, one of the most important figures in American history, and showing the many different facets of his personality and presidency, both his actions and the many ways they were perceived, as well as the fact that much of his life remains open to interpretation because there simply isn’t enough information for us to establish certain facts with firmness. Despite the fact that we don’t know as much as we wish we did, the Lincoln Museum still offers visitors an informative experience, even if most visitors have probably learned about Lincoln since they were in grade school. More than that, the Lincoln Museum is a moving experience that helps visitors understand better the man who led the United States through one of the darkest times in its history.