Last Monday, Brian Lamb, founder of
C-SPAN, put three Lincoln scholars on the spot.
As David Herbert Donald, Harold Holzer and Matthew
Pinsker faced C-SPAN's cameras, which were filming the
wrap-up session of a two-day scholarly conference on
Lincoln that coincided with the Abraham Lincoln
Presidential Museum dedication events, Lamb asked them
what they thought of the museum.
"Best that I've ever seen," Donald said.
"Astounded," Pinsker added.
Holzer said that Richard Norton Smith, the museum's
director, delivered on his promise to marry "showmanship
Lamb then asked them what they didn't like.
The three scholars, speaking at the Lincoln
Presidential Library, weren't about to ruin
Springfield's parade on the eve of the museum’s
Still, being historians, they had something to say.
Donald said he wished the figures of Mary were
“pleasanter,” in keeping with her rounded and prettier
features. Holzer regretted that, in the “Lincoln’s Eyes”
show, there was no rebuttal to abolitionists’ claims
that the Emancipation Proclamation freed no slave.
Pinsker said the museum gave short shrift to Lincoln’s
emerging political career during the 1850s.
Other scholars at the conference provided their own
input: the figures are “a mixed bag,” more information
should be been provided on the battle of Gettysburg and
Lincoln’s subsequent address, and there are too few
artifacts. The list goes on.
But few of the scholarly comments pointed out
fundamental flaws in the museum’s portrayal of history.
The historians’ views were overwhelmingly positive.
“I liked it. I thought it was great fun,” Holzer
“Well, does the museum work?” reflected Lincoln
scholar and collector Frank J. Williams, the chief
justice of Rhode Island’s Supreme Court. “I think so.
There’s something for everyone.”
State historian Tom Schwartz, who oversaw practically
all of the museum’s content, says what is in the museum
is not carved in stone.
Explanatory plaques always can be added or revised -
and will be as more and more feedback is provided, he
For starters, a number of plans are under way to beef
up the amount of information provided at the museum.
Schwartz says there are discussions to offer recorded
in-depth audio tours by Smith. Schwartz and Phillip
Paludan, a Lincoln and Civil War scholar at the
University of Illinois at Springfield, are working on
adding a series of plaques throughout the museum that
will highlight various scholarly debates about Lincoln
and his times.
Currently, the “Learn More” plaques throughout the
museum recommend the same 11 books. Those will be
replaced by reading lists that match the subject matter
of each exhibit. Museum volunteers are being trained to
offer more information and are being encouraged to read
up on areas in the museum that interest them.
Then there’s the temporary exhibit, “Blood on the
Moon,” a probing examination of Lincoln’s assassination
that appears to offers as much text as the rest of the
museum put together.
Still, Schwartz says, so much material is available
on Lincoln’s life that it’s not possible to offer a
thorough explanation of everything.
“The museum is not a classroom,” Schwartz says. “The
goal is to make Lincoln accessible. You can’t shoot
above the heads of the audience. Lincoln’s legal
practice, for example, doesn’t work in a museum very
well - it would work well in an academic conference
setting. Neither would Lincoln’s humor.”
There’s a big difference between telling a joke and
trying to explain why it’s funny, Schwartz says.
“But I plead guilty,” Schwartz says. “We could’ve
done more. All of these (concerns) are valid - if the
museum was twice the size.”
The press has not been as kind as the scholars.
The Chicago Tribune has printed a couple of articles
blasting the museum’s architecture and exhibits. The
Washington Post and The New York Times have been
critical, too. Times reporter Edward Rothstein summed up
his concerns by writing, “(in the museum) Lincoln
remains an icon: The Suffering Servant of the Union, a
martyr for the cause of equality. Complications are
shunted aside for a series of psychodramas.”
Rothstein and others also have criticized exhibits
and shows at the museum that paraphrase statements by
The media criticisms tend to target the museum’s
whole approach to storytelling, whether paraphrasing and
putting words in mouths of historical characters for the
sake of simplicity or whether tweaking an exhibit for
its emotional impact.
Rothstein points to the “Lincoln’s Eyes” show, a
short biographical presentation on Lincoln. During the
climactic assassination scene, the show stops short of
Booth exclaiming “Sic semper tyrannis!” as he jumps from
the balcony at Ford’s Theatre after having shot Lincoln.
The words were omitted partly because of concern that
audiences would not understand the Latin phrase, which
means “thus always to tyrants” and is the motto of
Virginia. But counter to what Rothstein’s review
implies, the assassination episode in the show stops
short of Booth leaping onto the stage anyway.
But simplification is an accepted practice among
historians, according to the American Historical
Association, the main professional society for 15,000
historians in universities and museums.
The AHA’s Statement on Standards of Professional
Conduct states that “Public discussions of complex
historical questions inevitably translate and simplify
many technical details.”
By their nature, museums, like documentaries, are
interpretative, Schwartz says. There’s not enough source
material to fill in every blank.
In the case of Booth, simplification makes sense,
Schwartz says. During “Lincoln’s Eyes,” a shadowy Booth
spews his hatred of Lincoln. The words are made up, but
Schwartz says Booth’s actual words would require too
much annotation, which would either ruin the narration
or add too much time to the show.
“Booth sent a letter to the National Intelligencer to
explain his act,” Schwartz explains. “It’s all cloaked
in a language of classicist republicanism. It wasn’t
direct. It was indirect. There are literary allusions.
Unless you understand (Shakespeare’s) ‘Julius Caesar,’
it’s hard to understand.”
“When most scholars went through (the museum during
the academic conference), they were pleasantly
surprised,” he said. Its methods are “nothing they
wouldn’t do in their lectures.”
Critics continue to spot nitpicking anachronisms, but
Schwartz handles them well.
The museum’s White House kitchen, for example, is
based on an 1890s-era photo from the Benjamin Harrison
administration. The photo is included in the exhibit.
“There is nothing to suggest that a major functional
change or remodeling occurred in the kitchen (between
the Lincoln and Harrison administrations),” says
Schwartz. To back this up, the photo shows an 1859 model
stove. The museum found the same model and restored it
for the exhibit.
Another is the closed casket in the Lincoln funeral
scene. A photo in the exhibit demonstrates the casket
was open, but museum officials say even the advising
historians recommended keeping it closed.
“I’ll be honest,” Schwartz says. “Most of those
decisions as to what to show and what not to show are
from questions from over two decades from the public.”
For the funeral scene, Schwartz says it’s very
difficult to visit the Old State Capitol, a few blocks
from the museum, and envision what it would have looked
like draped from ceiling to floor in black mourning
drapes during Lincoln’s funeral there in 1865.
“It’s been a big disconnect,” he says. “But for the
first time, they can see what it’s like. People come
into that room talking and then there are hushed tones.
They shut up. It’s a huge emotional scene, even for the
cynics. Some cry.”
It was emotional back in 1865, too. Schwartz says
that’s the point.
The funeral scene isn’t the last in the museum.
There’s one more thing to pass - an exhibit case of
artifacts, one of dozens throughout the building.
This case shows some of the items people lifted from
the White House and other Lincoln sites after his death.
Pieces of Lincoln’s life were taken because people had a
hard time letting go. It also marks the beginning of
Lincoln the myth, a historic phenomenon the museum does
its best to challenge.
“I don’t know how else you end the story,” Schwartz
Pete Sherman can be contacted at 788-1539 or