Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

Lincoln Quote

 The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

 Springfield, Illinois

Located in the blocks between 6th and Madison and 7th and E. Washington in Springfield, IL, lie among of the most popular and controversial libraries and museums in the United States.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, located across the street from one another in Springfield, IL, comprise one of the nation’s foremost sites of commemoration to the life of Abraham Lincoln and the era in which he lived.  The museum features exhibits both permanent and temporary that display artifacts from Lincoln’s life in Illinois and in Washington, and the Library contains the rest of the world’s most complete collection of Lincolniana.  Books, artwork, and documents relating to the president as well as Lincoln’s writings, and possessions are available in the museum for public viewing, and in the library for research.

The library and museum are located just two miles from Lincoln’s Tomb (read more about his tomb and monument here), four blocks from the Great Western Depot (read more about the Depot, where he delivered his celebrated Farewell Address in 1861 before his departure to the White House, here), and just down the street from Lincoln’s former home, now a national historic site overseen by the National Park Service.  The centrality of Lincoln sites of memory in downtown Springfield have optimized the town as the nation’s best location for commemorating and learning about the legacy of our 16th president.

The Lincoln Presidential Library:  The library contains the most comprehensive collection of historical artifacts from Lincoln’s life, amassing 1,600 of his papers, thousands of relevant historical documents, and over 10,000 books relating to the life and legacy of the Great Emancipator [1].  The combination of items from Lincoln’s life and items from the state’s history provides powerful and comprehensive contextualization of Lincoln’s life and life in the Midwest throughout the middle of the 19th century.  The library houses original versions of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, and the 13th amendment to the US Constitution, along with many other significant items pertaining to the material memory of Lincoln, Illinois, and the United States.

It is both one of the newest and oldest presidential libraries, originally called the Illinois State Historical Library, opened in 1889.  In 2004 it was renamed after Abraham Lincoln [2].  For years, the most notable collections in the library were its archives of state newspapers and genealogical records, largely unrelated to the former president [3].  Coinciding with the name change came the donation of the Taper Collection [4].  In 2004, the Library received a massive donation of artifacts and documents from Louise Taper, who over 35 years had amassed the world’s largest private collection of Lincolniana.  The collection included one of Lincoln’s signature top hats, the earliest existing sample of his handwriting, and the gloves he had in his coat the night of his assassination.  The donation gave the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library the distinction it enjoys today: the largest collection of Lincoln historical artifacts in the world, and in many ways dignified the library’s identity shift from Illinois history to Lincoln history.

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Lincoln’s assassination gloves- one of the most significant pieces of material memory in the library’s collection.

This library’s retrospective nominalization has in many ways forgotten what were once the its most valuable and renown resources.  Illinois’ state history is far broader than the life of Abraham Lincoln.  The library’s name change represents a symbolic turn from emphasis on telling the state’s history to emphasis on Lincoln’s story.  The library and other sites of Lincoln memory in Springfield have thus become massive tourism attractions for the city.  What are the implications for changing the way we advertise our history?  This is not the only example of retrospective nominalization associated with Abraham Lincoln, it is in fact a somewhat common occurrence for tourist sites.  For example, the nearby Great Western Depot is now officially called the Lincoln Depot, largely in order to better attract visitors.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum: Adjacent to the library is the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, built in 2004.  The museum contains a few permanent exhibits that portray Lincoln at different stages of his life (one shows him as a young man in his rural cabin, another with his family in front of the White House), as well as several rotating, temporary exhibits that put on display some of the most significant items in the library’s collection [5].

This exhibit is supposed to depict the Lincoln family shortly following their arrival in Washington. Notice anything out of place? How about John Wilkes Booth stalking in the background?!

This exhibit is supposed to depict the Lincoln family shortly following their arrival in Washington in 1861. Notice anything out of place? What about John Wilkes Booth in the background, scouting out a crime he wouldn’t conceive for nearly four years?!

Since the museum opened its doors, it has been a tremendously popular destination for visiting fans of Lincoln (hardly surprising considering the amount of Lincoln-driven tourism Springfield attracts each year), but has been met with overwhelmingly negative reviews from Lincoln scholars, historians, and architects.  Critics argue that the museum’s exhibits are too narrativized, are cheaply influenced by Hollywood, and do not present Lincoln in an objective, historical manner.  One particularly critical historian even went as far as to call the museum “Six Flags over Lincoln.” [6]  He and others argue that the museum’s designers failed in their duty to create a space different from other Lincoln memorials- a space that would allow America to confront the controversies Lincoln faced in his life, rather than simply glorifying him [7].

Observers have found the contrast between the authenticity of the artifacts found in the Presidential Library and the inauthentic, kitsch museum exhibits right across the street off-putting.  “Surrounded by buildings where the real Lincoln did real things, the museum instead offers modern-day facsimiles of these and other historic sites.” [6]  One notices a contrast between the museum’s architecture and the designs of other Lincoln monuments.  The classical architecture found on the Lincoln Memorial, in Washington, D.C. (read more about the monument, its architecture, and creation here is starkly different from the soft edged, somewhat shapeless design of the Lincoln Presidential Museum.

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Notice the ornate design on the Lincoln Memorial’s pillars.

Notice the flat surfaces and dull design on the Lincoln Museum’s walls and columns.

In all, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum provide telling insight about just how Americans commemorate Lincoln today.  The library has been renamed to glorify the living memory of Lincoln- what was once an important vernacular part of the state’s memory and identity has been made official.  The museum’s exhibits, although immensely popular for tourists, are arguably disingenuous in their presentation of Lincoln’s life, capitalizing on Americans’ lack of accurate historical knowledge.  John Wilkes Booth was very much not present the day Abraham Lincoln arrived at the White House!  The two in fact never met, although Lincoln was a fan, Booth ignored his invitation to the White House [8].  In many ways, Lincoln is more popular than ever, have been deified as the savior of our nation and the most perfect president.  This representation of him, although perpetuated by sites like the museum, must be accompanied by an appropriate presentation his life’s struggles and controversies.  The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum does not present Lincoln in such a way.

[1] 2012. “Lincoln Collection.” Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, Springfield, IL. Illinois.gov. Web. <http://www.illinois.gov/alplm/library/Pages/default.aspx#tabitem1>
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[2] Kessel, John H. “: A Presidential Library Fit for Abraham Lincoln.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 39.2 (2009): 418-23. Web.
[3] “Illinois State Historical Library.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 51.4 (1958): 428-30. Web.
[4] Willis, Christopher. “Private Abraham Lincoln Collection Goes Public.” NBC News. Associated Press, 18 June 2007. Web
[5] 2015. “About Us.” Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, Springfield, IL. Illinois.gov Web. <http://www.illinois.gov/alplm/museum/About/Pages/default.aspx>
[6] Kamin, Blair. “Lincoln Land.” Chicago Tribune 10 Apr. 2005
[7] Sherman, Pete. “Library Sparks Debate.” Editorial. The State Journal-Register. Abraham Lincoln Online.
[8] Kauffman, Michael W. American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies. New York: Random House, 2004. Print.
[Photo A] Lincoln’s Annual Message to Congress, Photo located at http://www.illinois.gov/alplm/library/Pages/default.aspx#tabitem1
[Photo B] Photograph of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum, found at http://www.hok.com/uploads/2012/05/29/abraham-lincoln-pres-lib-mus02.jpg
[Photo C] Photo of Lincoln’s assassination gloves, found at: http://www.nbcnews.com/id/19296033/#.VS6bEhPF8mV
[Photo C] Photo of Lincoln Memorial Architecture, found at https://c2.staticflickr.com/2/1210/5121635461_43fed37e50_z.jpg
[Photo D] Photo of Lincoln Museum exterior Architecture, found at http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8476/8095637458_c4002e7800_z.jpg
[Photo E] Photo of White House exhibit at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, found at http://www.indianapolismonthly.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2015/02/0215_lincolnfamily.jpg

One thought on “Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

  1. Joshua Mu

    I think that many times, we’re trained to only know about either the very best or the very worst thing a person did, and we forget that almost all historical figures – some more than others – have some kind of controversy that is overlooked when we learn about that figure at a young age. This may be a kind of collective memory among non-historians. We are raised to believe that Lincoln is one of the most heroic presidents, who ended slavery and united our nation. We have a holiday where he’s celebrated, he’s often virtuously referenced as “Honest Abe,” he’s on the penny and five dollar bill, and he has a monument in Washington D.C. On the surface, and just from the widespread positive partial collective memory, I think it’s safe to say that there isn’t very much widespread knowledge of his controversy, which indeed can make it seem like dedicating an almost wholly happy and positive museum is quite disingenuous. It’s good that historians are pointing this out, and I think it’s important for everyone to be informed about both the positive and less positive aspects of any commemorated figure.

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