Experience Lincoln: Presidential Library and Museum comes to life

Chris Wills, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum communications director, stands in front of a replica cabin based on the Lincoln boyhood home in Indiana in 1818. The replica cabin was made from genuine materials from a mid-1800s tobacco barn found in storage in Cynthiana, Kentucky. A second one was located in storage in Abington, Virginia. They were shipped to Springfield, Illinois, and reassembled as one cabin in the museum.

It could be a street name, a city, a historic site, a school name, a portrait on a classroom or library wall, a site that’s part of the 43-county Lincoln National Heritage Area, or just on a license plate.

The 16th president’s shadow looms large in the Land of Lincoln, and rightly so.

To get a well-rounded look at one the nation’s greatest presidents, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is an ideal visiting point for the entire family to learn more about Lincoln, the man.

Opened in 2005, the museum portion occupies an entire city block with over 50,000 square feet devoted to state-of-the-art, full-immersion exhibits, special effects theaters and displays of original artifacts. It is touted as the first “experience museum” of its kind.

Instead of the traditional museum design of static exhibits with flat images and objects in glass boxes, the museum employs 21st century technology to bring the 19th century to life. At any given time, the museum displays about 120 Lincoln-related items.

The library portion is in the adjacent 98,000-square-foot building that’s also home of the Illinois State Historical Library and its world-renown Henry Horner Lincoln Collection. It houses 12 million books, documents and artifacts, 52,000 of which are artifacts from the Lincoln Collection, the world’s largest.

This collection includes, among other artifacts, an original copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, the 13th amendment outlawing slavery, the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s presidential briefcase, all of which had been stored in a vault for more than 100 years. These, as well as other items, are part of a rotating display at the museum.

Non-Lincoln-related items in the library include original material from Illinois history from the 1700s through the 1900s, pertaining to governors, statesmen, the Civil War, famous historical figures and common people.

The millions of items in the collection include, for example, 150 original copies of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” published in 1857 and the earliest newspaper published in Illinois — 1814, before Illinois was a state. The library also is one of the top resources for genealogical research.

Experience Lincoln: Presidential Library and Museum comes to life

Visitors to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum are greeted by the Lincoln family in front of the White House as it would have appeared in 1861. The museum is considered to be the first major Experience Museum. Designed, created and produced by BRC Imagination Arts, the museum combines priceless historical artifacts with BRC’s innovative, contemporary storytelling technologies.

The library is largely utilized for researching Lincoln, local history and genealogy.

“I think the most important thing for people to realize about the library is that it’s 52,000 or so Lincoln items and 12 million other items about other parts of Illinois history,” said Chris Wills, ALPLM communications director.

“This began as the Illinois State Historical Library covering all elements of Illinois history, so it still has huge, huge resources for people from newspapers published all over the state in all eras of Illinois history to rare books to maps to family tree information, it has a lot there for someone who wants to come in and talk to our librarians for help.”

Lincoln’s Journey

Then there’s the amazing museum.

The displays following Lincoln’s journey from his childhood log cabin home, his life in New Salem to Springfield, the 1860 campaign and his emotional farewell speech leaving Springfield for what would be the last time.

The journey continues with Lincoln’s arrival in Washington, D.C., and continues through the Civil War, family loss, political victories and his assassination and funeral.

The museum also features two theaters: “Ghosts of the Library — Holavision Theatre” and “The Union Theatre.”

The Illinois Gallery, which includes rotating exhibits, currently features “In This Great Struggle: The Greatest Generation Remembers World War II.” The exhibit includes audio and video of people telling their own stories from the war.

Landing at Normandy, surviving Pearl Harbor, working at an aircraft factory, discovering Nazi death camps are among the stories told first-hand.

It also includes World War II artifacts like Gen. Eisenhower’s helmet, a WWII motorcycle and forged papers given to a downed pilot by the French Resistance.

The Greatest Generation exhibit runs through Jan. 12. A new exhibit opens in late-winter, early-spring.

Global Appeal

Wills said the museum draws visitors from not only the U.S. but also from around the world.

“Any given day you might come here and meet somebody from Japan or China or Germany or other countries. We get a lot of visitors from Europe who are following Route 66. They know Route 66 and they know Abraham Lincoln so when they’re passing through Springfield they make sure to stop,” Wills said.

The museum succeeds in offering something for all ages.

“This place works for all levels. When you tour there’s stuff to captivate small children, there’s detailed stuff for adults, there’s visual things for people who enjoy the visual aspect, there’s also material to read if that’s the way you absorb information. There are shows; there are presentations that present his life in a dramatic way. So, we really try hard to make sure that we offer something for everybody who comes to visit,” Wills said.


Wills, who has been on the ALPLM staff for about seven years, was asked if there was anything he learned about Lincoln that he didn’t know before joining the staff.

“One of the things that didn’t really sink in until I was here and learning more about his life was the fact that he showed up in New Salem without any education, without any friends to speak of, and within a year or so was running for the state legislature. He lost that first race but then two years later he ran again and won,” Wills said.

“This is a man who almost immediately, once he got his feet planted someplace, started trying to move up and tries to follow his ambition and his talents. So, I think that’s really impressive. I just think if you or I went to some little town, we’d concentrate just on making a living,” he said. “But Abraham Lincoln just went right to it and I think that shows a lot about his determination to rise.”

Tom C. Doran can be reached at 815-780-7894 or tdoran@agrinews-pubs.com. Follow him on Twitter at: @AgNews_Doran.


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