Making Lincoln Come Alive
Planting the seed of the Presidential library
Sen. Dick Durbin’s proposals in the 1990s for a new “Presidential Center” devoted to study and teaching about Lincoln which anticipated in every important way the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum that opened in Springfield fifteen years later. As for my suggestion here that such a center go Disney, my conscience is clear. Happily, nothing I have ever written on any subject has ever had the slightest effect on any official action by government at any level.
I had my doubts 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.
The date on the clipping that is my only copy of this column was missing, so I can only guess at when it appeared until (as we all hope) the paper archives of the pre-internet Illinois Times will be scanned and put online.
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 must be regarded as any other government economic development projection. 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 in rubles for decades.
Alas, Serious Purpose proscribes the kinds of shows that really would bring Lincoln alive to an audience of jaded ignoramuses 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. ●