Tuesday, April 12, 2005

A bloodied shirt, computer-generated apparitions, prerecorded gossip, fog machines — organizers claim it’s just an honest look at Honest Abe.

The traditional solemnity associated with a presidential story has been upstaged by special effects and sideshows at the $115 million, 200,000-square-foot Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, 15 years in the making and double the size of any other presidential museum.

The complex opens Saturday in Springfield, Ill., as the state’s ultimate tourist destination, bringing “scholarship and showmanship together,” said Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich.

“This is in-your-face history,” said Dave Blanchette of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, which teamed with Hollywood amusement park designers BRC Imagination Arts to create multiple exhibits.

But Southern Illinois University historian and Lincoln authority John Y. Simon doesn’t buy it.

“Handing Abraham Lincoln’s history over to theme-park people in California to tell his story with rubber figures, gee-whiz effects and a taste for the macabre is a mistake,” Mr. Simon said yesterday.

“Lincoln had a certain majesty. This museum does nothing to ennoble him, and to use tax dollars to degrade him is wrong,” he said.

The site is owned by the state of Illinois and supported by a nonprofit foundation. Visitors, who will be charged a $7.50 entry fee, will be treated to re-creations of a “harrowing” slave auction, an “illusion corridor” brimming with holographic specters and a full-scale reproduction of the box in Ford’s Theatre where Lincoln was assassinated.

“Blood on the Moon,” the site’s lead exhibit, commemorates the shooting with Lincoln’s bloodstained shirt and deathbed, manacles and a hood used on the conspirators, and other disquieting items.

An interactive “Ask Mr. Lincoln” exhibit — which answers back — allows visitors to ask the nation’s 16th president predetermined questions about his marriage or whether he is related to actor Tom Hanks. A “Whispering Gallery” allows visitors to hear “brutally unkind things” said about Lincoln and view political cartoons that depict him as a monkey.

The designers only want to frame Abe Lincoln in modern terms, they say.

“History is too important to be left in the past,” said Bob Rogers of BRC Imagination Arts, who added the museum is a showcase for “world-class storytelling and dazzling high-tech surprises.”

Reviews are less than sterling. After a visit, Chicago Tribune architectural critic Blair Kamin called the building “a flop” and the exhibits “mawkish,” ultimately concluding that “Hollywood took over.”

Still, it’s party time in Illinois.

The grand opening will be heralded by a “Looking for Lincoln Block Party.” C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb and pundit David Gergen will be on hand to host intellectual discussions; C-SPAN will broadcast live from the museum Monday morning.

A $500-a-plate museum fundraiser for 600, which re-creates a Lincoln White House dinner — complete with pheasant, filet mignon and Mary Todd cake — drew such an enthusiastic response that it was moved from a local hotel to a regional convention center.

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