Below:  A short presentation of ALPLM’s use of technology to promote Lincoln memory.
The Spectral Spectacle: Digitized Phantasmagoria
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (ALPLM) is found in Springfield, Illinois. The museum is in the city’s historic downtown section and is thus in the epicenter of Lincoln memory – only a few blocks away from Lincoln’s Tomb. When the museum was inaugurated in early 2005, ALPLM became the official “Lincoln Museum”, replacing Ford’s Theater, which previously held the designation.
Inside the three structures that compose the Presidential Library and Museum is a plethora of Lincoln-related memorabilia; it houses everything from life-size dioramas of the home from Lincoln’s early years to the original copy of the Gettysburg Address . However, none of these artifacts are considered the main attraction; that honor belongs to the permanently installed, AT&T sponsored, holographic ghost show entitled Ghosts of the Library. The presentation is hosted by a live actor miming (all dialogue is prerecorded) the role of “Thomas”, a historian at the museum . As he answers his own rhetorical question “why study all this old stuff?” the artifacts the actor interacts with summon forth, through the use of modern holographic technology, the literal ghosts of history. As the host starts reading from the journal of a Confederate soldier, a crowd of holographic ghosts are projected out from its pages; this is accompanied by the deafening auditory reenactment of a civil-war era battlefield . This cacophonous release of battlefield noise and digitized soldier ghosts is later followed by a reading of an excerpt from the Gettysburg Address – first by Thomas and then, over his shoulder, by the ghost of Lincoln himself (projected into holographic existence out of thin air) . The excerpt in question is a non-controversial soundbite speaking of freedom, but making no mention of slavery. Lincoln vanishes and afterwards the spectacle comes to a close when Thomas reveals his true nature by transforming into the holographic ghost of a Union soldier. During this metamorphosis Thomas urges the audience to focus on a stars and stripes style flag flying behind him, saying:
I carried that flag into battle. I didn’t come back, but we still have the flag. So, why save all this stuff? Because our past illuminates our future. It tells us we are a people who despise oppression and embrace freedom, and that we are willing to fight, and if need to die for those ideals. I know. I died for those ideals that day in Vicksburg. That was my flag. Now it is yours. As long as our story is told, our experience becomes your experience. Our courage becomes your courage, and the best part of us lives on in you .
The Symbolism: Reanimating Lincoln’s Ghost
Lincoln’s digitized materialization, despite its brevity, has profound implications. The act of literally reanimating the spirit of the 16th president as a computer-programmed phantom could even be considered sacrilegious. It is salient to be aware that the presentation is offered to the audience in the guise of non-fiction. The glass wall used to project the holograms is explained as existing for the purpose of protecting the “authentic artifacts” (of which there are none on stage) and as explained previously, the host’s live delivery of the narrative is also a fabrication. This attempt to legitimate the scene as real in the present moment, not merely as a cinematic representation or as a material monument, separates it from other sites of memory. Here “the past” is given a form of agency. Lincoln and the reanimated soldiers appear seemingly out of their own volition to deliver their messages to the audience.
Considering the limited context that Lincoln is resurrected in, one finds a strong examples of both what Barbie Zelizer defines as partial and usable memory . The performance is a partial memory practice primarily for a few reasons: Gettysburg is being presented as the instance that Lincoln’s ghost has chosen to break down the temporal barrier and redeliver. Moreover, Lincoln’s appearance is flanked on both sides with nationalistic fervor. On one end the calmlydelivered triumphant Gettysburg Address is juxtaposed with the chaos of the preceding battle-scene. The excerpt of the Address is then followed, and reinforced, by the rhapsodizing over the Union flag and over “Americans'” will to fight and die for “their” collective freedom. In other words, Lincoln is presented as a proponent of his own role as a “savior of The Union” and both sides of the conflict are conglomerated into an uncontroversial togetherness by the metaphysically Lincoln-endorsed exiting monologue (we are a people who despise oppression et cetera). While freedom is mentioned (by the white male narrator and Mr. Lincoln himself) it is contextualized very broadly and Black Americans are completely glossed over. The total lack of complexity, in combination with the increased “realness” of the simulation, creates a dangerous potential for misinformation.
Furthermore, the scene is a conveniently useable memory expression: Symbolically, Lincoln’s very soul becomes an AT&T sponsored, pre-programmed, marionette. He can thus be contextualized and monetarily exploited by the museum, AT&T, and BRC Imagination Arts (the private company behind the exhibit). When scrutinizing the purpose of the ghostly revival it could be argued that Lincoln’s memory is being used by BRC Imagination Arts as advertisement for their proprietary technology. The museum itself has also benefited greatly from the inclusion of the exhibit – which was created at the suggestion of Illinois’ state historian as a way to generate revenue (a similar situation to that of Mount Rushmore). Off of the back of Lincoln’s resuscitation the museum generated – from the gift-shop alone – over one-million dollars in profit in the first three months . It remains one of the most visited Presidential Libraries in the country .
“Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum Uses Modern Tools to Teach History.” YouTube. Chicago Tribune, 13 Mar. 2003. Web. 17 Apr. 2015.
- “2012 REPORT OF THE ILLINOIS HISTORIC PRESERVATION AGENCY”. State of Illinois. February 21, 2013.
- Landis, Tim, Morris, Natalie (July 21, 2005). “Tourism Booming: Museum Seems to be Boosting All Attractions.”, State Journal Register (Illinois).
- Mumler, William. Mary Todd Lincoln with Abraham Lincoln’s “spirit” Digital image. Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection, Allen County Public Library, Fort Wayne, Indiana, Fort Wayne, Indiana, c1872. Web. 17 Apr. 2015.
- Ross, Ivan. “Digital Ghosts in the History Museum: The Haunting of Today’s Mediascape.” Continuum 27.6 (2013): 825-36. Web. 14 Apr. 2015.
- Schmid, Kristen. Bob Rogers and Thomas Schwartz with Lincoln’s Holavision Ghost. Digital image. The Washington Post. The Washington Post, 15 Feb. 2005. Web. 14 Apr. 2015.
- Zelizer, Barbie. “Reading the Past Against the Grain: The Shape of Memory Studies.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 12.2 (1995): n. pag. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.