Making Lincoln Come Alive
From tiny acorns do Presidential libraries grow
Sen. Dick Durbin’s proposals for a new “Presidential Center” devoted to study and teaching about Lincoln anticipated in every important way the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum that opened in Springfield fifteen years later.
I had my doubts about such a project at the time. (Why not a center devoted to Lincoln’s Illinois years?) I concluded that “Presidential Center” was just how Downstaters pronounce “tourist attraction,” and that it wouldn’t work the miracles predicted for it. I kept giving officials good advice—in this piece I reminded them that the only way to get tourists to spend the night in Springfield is to steal the distributor caps from the cars in Lincoln Home parking lot—but they never took it.
As for my suggestion here that such a center go Disney, my conscience is clear. Happily for the Commonwealth, nothing I have ever written on any subject has ever had the slightest effect on any official action by government at any level.
I was among the crowd that watched as the old Abe Lincoln Hotel was leveled to make the parking lot that still occupies the block at Fifth and Capitol in downtown Springfield. Schedule permitting, I hope to be there to watch when that same lot is transformed into Congressman Richard Durbin's proposed Abraham Lincoln Presidential Center. The sight of a building rising from a parking lot in downtown Springfield is the closest thing to a miracle I ever expect to see.
Apart from that, however, there is scant reason to regard the $18 million Lincoln center as an improvement. The popular congressman has always been the one who plays indulgent uncle to his constituents spoiled children, and Mr. Durbin is frank about his desire to extract more money from the federal Treasury. He points out that Illinois has scant Park Service sites compared to such states as Arizona. But we have nothing to match that state's Grand Canyon, its Spanish missions, or its historic forts from the Indian campaigns, its Navajo dwellings or its Saguaro deserts. Illinoisans have as much grounds to complain about Arizona's National Park sites as Alaskans have to complain that Illinois gets more USDA corn subsidies than they do.
The word "center" betrays the building's true purpose. The word means nothing in particular, and thus is the perfect moniker for a building that has no real purpose. The center's backers (and Durbin is far from alone in his enthusiasm) insist the new facility will induce the fickle tourist to linger in Springfield, enriching local hoteliers and restaurateurs and thus, eventually, tax coffers.
Such calculations are honestly made but they hopelessly misread the appetites of Gawkus americanus. Of the roughly 500,000 people who are thought to tour the Lincoln Home National Historic Site each year, only about 235,000 actually walk through the house. Some of them are peak-period visitors who would not or could not stand in line; others are school kids who cannot be squeezed in. But many of those more than a quarter-million are people whose interest in the great man is sated by merely looking at the outside of the house. Planners have projected that visitors will spend two to three hours at the center. So they will—if the architects make the restrooms very hard to find.
Equally suspect is the NPS's claim that the center will double present attendance at the home site via a facility that offers no restaurants, no gift shops, no trolley rides, no animated monsters, and no interactive "You be the general" games. Are there really a half-million people out there who now disdain visiting Springfield because all they can see here are the places where Lincoln lived, worked, and is buried, where he delivered one of his most famous speeches and where he left for the White House, but who will come to see a bunch of old furniture and one of several copies of the Gettysburg Address displayed like this week's special in the meat department at National?
The only way to get tourists to spend the night in Springfield is to make the rounds of the Lincoln Home parking lot and steal the distributor caps from the cars. In the 1970s, the same promise was made concerning the sound and blight—sorry, sound and light—show held nightly on the Old Capitol Square; that folded after a few years when the winos complained the noise from the narration kept them awake. Springfield has been able to entice so few tourists to linger even for lunch that a McDonald's on the same block as both the Old State Capitol and Lincoln's old law offices closed down.
Originally the Lincoln Center was to be a sort of posthumous Presidential library. That is a valid notion. But the Illinois State Historic Library objected giving up its documentary treasures to the new facility, and the Library of Congress could hardly be expected to be any more enthusiastic. A comprehensive repository would appeal only to scholars in any event, and even Lincoln scholars are not numerous enough to constitute a tourism market segment all by themselves.
If it can't offer a comprehensive collection of Lincoln papers, supporters say, the center can at least offer visitors a comprehensive interpretive experience. "Interpretation" is a hybrid of instruction and entertainment, Serious Purpose fast-food style. The problem is that the agencies responsible for the interpretive displays that are boring the bunions off of today's tourists—the NPS and the Illinois State Historic Preservation Agency—are same ones who will be responsible for designing the new one. Durbin speaks hopefully of enlisting a documentarian like Ken Burns for the job. But in age when Omnimax sets the standards for the tourist's expectations, the hope that people will come to Springfield for the chance to watch another PBS TV show will be disappointed.
Interpretation can also be achieved via artifacts, and indeed the popularity of the Lincoln home and New Salem resides in the fact that they offer things unmediated by interpretation. Durbin says that he has already received offers to donate or loan Lincoln artifacts from now-scattered collections. As is the case with papers, such a collection will be made comprehensive only by legislative compulsion or a very great deal of money, and in any event the context within which they will be displayed—crucial to understanding, as opposed to mere titillation—will be missing. The visitor will end up staring at display cases or at best dioramas of the sort that up-to-date museums are abandoning.
There is one artifact that people would flock to see, of course, and that is Lincoln's body. Thanks to environmentally-incorrect embalming techniques used in the last century, Lincoln is probably better preserved today that Reagan was at the time he left office. If Illinois can seriously consider bringing U. S. Grant from New York to Galena for the edification of the tourist, why not bring Lincoln from Oak Ridge to downtown? Lenin's body kept the Moscow Tourism Bureau rolling in rubles for decades.
Alas, Serious Purpose proscribes the kinds of shows that really would bring Lincoln alive to an audience of jaded ignoramuses who are just killing time before check-in time in St. Louis. If attracting crowds is the aim, then let's do it properly. Set Ken Burns to work on an Omnimax version of the Battle of Gettysburg. Build replicas of Lincoln's birth cabin, his houses from New Salem and Springfield, his law offices, the Oval Office and Lincoln bedroom, the Ford Theatre, all connected by trolleys done up like Lincoln's funeral train. Let visitors roam in and on them at will. Recreate some of Lincoln's trials, with the public sitting as jurors, or put Abe and Mary look-alikes on the stage of a Ricky Lake-style talk show ("Married to expense account cheat").
Decry the Disneyfication of history if you want, but more people spend more time and more money at Disney sites than they do at NPS sites—and probably learn more about history too. If public agencies adopt the ends of Disney, they will be forced to adopt its means as well. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.