When we were planning our cross-country trip to Yellowstone this summer, we almost immediately decided to add a detour to Springfield, Illinois in order to see the various Lincoln sites. Unfortunately, we dallied a bit in Dayton at the wonderful Wright Brothers historical sites so we had to cut our time in Springfield a bit shorter than we originally intended. Instead of seeing multiple attractions, we only had time for one and we chose the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum based upon many reviews which all touted the interactive learning experience for visitors. My eldest daughter is still talking two years later about the movie at Mount Vernon where it snowed in the theater so that also influenced our choice.
Be prepared to shell out $12 per adult and $6 per child over age 5 here. It was one of the more expensive places we visited on our entire trip. We were able to find a $2 discount per adult ticket by searching for coupons online before our visit. Parking was plentiful in the garage down the street but you will pay for that as well at a $1.50 per hour rate. We found the staff at the admissions desk (also known as The Gateway) and at the garage to be particularly unfriendly.
Photography is only allowed in the central Plaza area of the museum and in Mrs. Lincoln's Attic. I saw one woman who made the mistake of taking a photography elsewhere berated to the point of tears. There are also surveillance cameras and alarms throughout the museum. If you cross the laser barriers, alarms start blaring and we heard quite a few of those during our visit. As we were not doing any scholarly research, we only went to the Museum and not the Presidential Library.
After passing the gauntlet of The Gateway, visitors find themselves at The Plaza. The Plaza is the core, or heart, of the Museum. Here is where you find the entrances to the rest of the exhibits and you can also take pictures with wax figures of the Lincoln family: Abraham, Mary, Robert, Tad and Willie. The figures are sort of strange looking in person but look a lot better in photographs.
My youngest daughter begged to spend some time in Mrs. Lincoln's Attic which is a children's play area. It was rather crowded but children have the opportunity to try on replica clothing, pretend to make dinner and play with an amazing doll house among other activities. We were able to placate her with a few minutes of play before continuing on to The Journey.
The Journey One covers Lincoln's Pre-Presidential years and is filled with more of those eerie wax figures. The entrance features a young Abraham Lincoln sitting on a stump in the Indiana woods outside the family's log cabin. You enter the cabin to see Lincoln reading by the fire in a room that slept eight people and can smell the wood smoke. Somehow, in my studies, I missed the fact that Lincoln began working as an Ohio River ferryman and traveled down the Mississippi to New Orleans. I'm always happy to learn something new so I particularly found this section interesting. His time in New Salem, Illinois is covered and then they move into his relocation to Springfield where he met and courted Mary Todd. We were able to see a wonderful exhibit on the Lincoln-Douglas debates but the section that my kids found the most fascinating is the Permissive Parent which features Lincoln lying on a sofa, reading a newspaper while his two youngest boys tear his office apart, jumping on tables and throwing ink. My girls were extremely opinionated, exclaiming that Abraham Lincoln was a "bad father" and no good parent allows their children to act like that. I felt awesome, that they've at least been paying attention, not only to the Museum but to everything I've been saying for the past decade!
We continued on to the Campaign 1860 exhibit, featuring Tim Russert who introduced the four candidates and their platforms, as if they were running modern-day campaigns. My girls wanted to move on as they see enough talking heads in real life to.
The next exhibit is really great, “Campaign 1860” has you visiting in a modern news studio, covering the four major candidates for the election, and complete with Tim Russert anchoring and introducing the candidates, and making commentary.
After exiting into the Plaza, we chose to continue with The Journey Two which covers The White House Years. We began by approaching the White House Portico, passing the Lincoln Family in the middle of The Plaza. Just outside are Generals George McClellan and Ulysses Grant, John Wilkes Booth, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas. Upon entering, we were greeted by Mary Todd Lincoln who was having her stays tightened by her dressmaker, Elizabeth Keckly. It was somewhat striking to see her "rivals" circling her from the rear, represented by bodiless dresses. Mrs. Lincoln felt threatened by all of them as she considered herself socially inferior to them. They had nothing nice to say about Mrs. Lincoln, who I find to be a very interesting historical figure. During her life, she was profligate and her spending was completely out of control. She lost everything and everyone during her life except for her eldest son who had her declared insane. Think about it - she lost three children and her husband. Horrifying.
The mural of Fort Sumter leads into what I consider to be the most memorable part of the exhibit: The Whispering Gallery. The lighting is dim with blur backlights and there are framed critical political cartoons of the time. However, every frame, every door, every wall is off-kilter and there isn't a square corner to be seen anywhere. It reminded me of the hallway in the Haunted Mansion at Disney World where there are doors knocking themselves.
The next exhibit shows Mary and Abraham at their chld Willie's deathbed as he fought unsuccessfully against typhoid fever. Mary fell into a deep depression after his death, holding seances to try to communicate with her dead son. About here, my youngest daughter started to get "creeped out" by the exhibits so I took her a lot more quickly through the remainer of this section of the Museum.
We walked through a recreation of the White House Kitchen, Lincoln's Cabinet Room, the illusion corridor about the Emancipation Proclamation, the War Gallery (which includes the Civil War in Four Minutes), the Telegraph Office (which features a mural as well as life masks of Lincoln from the beginning and end of his Presidency - you can really see how the pressures of the office aged him), the Gettysburg Gallery and the celebration of peace at war's end. We finished with Ford's Theater (where we see John Wilkes Booth sneaking up behind Lincoln and his wife in their booth as they watch Our American Cousin), the Funeral Train and Lying in State with Lincoln's coffin sitting on a catafalque. At this time, my 6 year old had had enough and was completely spooked. We returned to Mrs. Lincoln's Attic to calm her back down. I didn't mind missing a lot of the detail in these parts of the museum as we've been to Gettysburg and Ford's Theatre and so many Civil War sites and museums that while I would have enjoyed seeing the museum's take on these parts of our history, I didn't feel as if I missed the entire story.
I did get the chance to see The Treasures Gallery where items that belonged to the Lincolns are on display. Mary's taste was on display with the Meissen china with green vines and purple flowers. Purple was her favorite color. I also really liked the gigantic Gutzon Borglum sculpture of Lincoln's head. I made sure to point this out to the girls as we planned to visit Mount Rushmore later in our trip and Mr. Borglum designed the carvings.
We only had time for one of the theater shows so we chose "Ghosts of the Library" since that was recommended by the docent in the Cabinet Room. It uses a proprietary special effects method called "holavision" in order to make objects appear and be manipulated. Both my husband and I found the conclusion where the librarian turns out to be the ghost of a solider who died in the Civil War and he fades away to be way over the top but the girls really enjoyed it, even my more sensitive daughter who was already spooked by all of the death presented in the museum exhibits.
We unfortunately did not have time to explore the Illinois Gallery, the Ask Mr. Lincoln exhibit or see the other show, "Lincoln's Eyes" in The Union Theater. However, we did have time to exit through the Museum Store with ten minutes left before closing. If you want Lincoln books, reproductions, or knick knacks, have at it. I found the prices to be extremely high, especially when compared to the gift shops at Mount Vernon and Monticello. My already fragile daughter burst into tears when she was informed that the shop no longer carried the one souvenir she wanted more than anything on our trip: a handled grabber stick with Lincoln's head as the grabber (usually there's an alligator or shark head on the end). The clerk was extremely apologetic and tried everything to placate her. I ended up buying a $4 lollipop instead along with our usual souvenir of a patch for her blanket. I do hear that they may still carry the grabber heads at Ford's Theater so I'll look for that the next time we go into the District on the weekend.
Overall, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is a great place for families to get a good introduction to our sixteenth President, especially if you've never had the opportunity to visit any of the other sites associated with him. There's a lot of glitz and high tech gloss presented here, and in some ways, I felt as if I connected with Mary Todd Lincoln and with those around him, but never the man himself. He was still a mystery to me. Perhaps a visit to the Lincoln Home which is run by the National Park Service and is located only a few blocks away from the Museum would have provided more of a window into Lincoln himself. Then again, perhaps not.
Read all 3 Reviews
Write a Review