The Attic (a name which commemorates our first physical location) is, first and foremost, a site for the research students of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester: a virtual community which aims to include all students, be they campus-based and full-time, or distance-learning and overseas. But we welcome contributions from students of museum studies - and allied subject areas - from outside the School and from around the world. Here you will find a lot of serious stuff, like exhibition and research seminar reviews, conference alerts and calls for papers, but there's also some 'fluff'; the things that inspire, distract and keep us going. After all, while we may be dead serious academic types, we're human too.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Guest Blogger: Presidential Patriotism or Propaganda?

I am delighted to present a review of The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library in Springfield, Illinois written by The Attic's Chicago-based North American Correspondant (aka Christa Lohman).

Presidential Patriotism or Propaganda?
--a review of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library in Springfield, Illinois


By Christa Lohman

One thing that I left American History class knowing, was that Abraham Lincoln was not a bad man. In fact, he is arguably the greatest president that my country has known, guiding the country as the democratic union that our forefathers imagined was put to the test during the American Civil War. The recently christened Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library’s (ALPML) apparent mission is to make sure I never forget it.

‘Combining scholarship and showmanship, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in downtown Springfield, Illinois communicates the amazing life and times of Abraham Lincoln in unforgettable ways.’ (ALPML, http://www.alplm.org/museum/museum.html, 2007)

This is a very true statement, I have been thinking about the museum’s exhibits since visiting two weeks ago. I feel I should be moved by the power of Abraham Lincoln’s character, his perseverance in maintaining the union and his part in the abolition of slavery. Unfortunately, I find that I’m haunted by the manipulative, overly patriotic, subjective display of the life and times of this former president. The museum explores the life of Lincoln through four galleries, two multi-media theatre presentations, a traveling exhibit space and a children’s interactive gallery.



There are many things that are great about this museum which appeal to a variety of audiences. Multimedia and multi-modal learning are used throughout the exhibits.

• Auditory--music is used throughout exhibits, speeches are recreated and there is a modern day ‘newscast’ explaining the 1860 presidential race.
• Visual--recreated wax figures are used throughout the exhibits to make the president’s experiences come to life. However, the use of swelling patriotic tunes make it seem more like a Jerry Brockheimer film than an authentic recreation of music of an era.
• Spacial/perceptual theatre techniques are used to bring about certain feelings from the visitor. For example in the ‘Whispering Gallery’ crazy angles, eerie lighting and auditory negative comments of Lincoln and his policies are used to instill a sense of empathy from the visitor. These theatrical techniques are used to show how confusing and hard it was for him to lead the war and execute his plans such as the Emancipation Proclamation.
• Tactile--hands on computer areas, children’s interactive gallery where children (only those accompanied by ‘responsible adults’) can try on clothing, play with toys of the era and read books from the time period. I feel these activities could have been more accessible to the audience if they had been incorporated into the exhibits and been geared toward all visitors.

Experiential environments are used to recreate Lincoln’s boyhood home, the White House, and a decidedly creepy life-size recreation of Lincoln’s body lying in state in the capitol building of Springfield. The experiential learning attempted here, without opportunities for imaginative play or deeper critical exploration, made the exhibit remain two-dimensional and strangely flat. A plentitude of life-sized wax figures were used within the exhibits and the overuse of this may have been a contributing factor to the fakeness and, frankly, insincerity of the museum.

The Lying in State Gallery (pictured left) ended up being most disturbing to me personally. It is in this gallery that the motivations of the museum become questionable. Visitors simply filed by a recreation of Lincoln’s wake... what does this really achieve? The previous gallery ends with a quote from the then secretary of state, Edwin M. Stanton, when upon the moment of Lincoln’s death said “Now he belongs to the ages.” In lieu of morbidity, a more productive and effective means of remembrance, or contemplation, would be to turn this gallery into an exhibit that looks at Lincoln as an icon, a symbol of all that America stands for. In this gallery I envisioned a space in which visitors could reflect on their visit by writing what Lincoln means to them. Visitors could send in found Lincoln iconography. The issues of democracy, war and slavery could be compared to current issues of war and immigration. Dialogue could be facilitated regarding ways we could adapt what we have learned from Lincoln’s life and times to solve today’s problems.

This Museum relies on the common-denominator of American aesthetics....it’s showy, subjective and rather conceited by proudly boasting how exciting and advanced the museum is and how important and unparalleled the subject matter. The intro to one theatre production which gave a 15 minute presentation on the inner workings of the presidential library had a video from one of the Directors stating point blank that Abraham Lincoln was the greatest president. This subjective view was clear in the exhibits and critical views of Lincoln were rarely used within the exhibits. Many of the intros to the theatre productions felt like waiting in line at Epcot center and the shows themselves, well...felt much like a certain Michael Jackson video I remember watching as a kid at that very place. Their theatre productions involved overpowering patriotic music, pyrotechnics, boom machines under the seats and smoke machines to simulate the fiery battles of the Civil War.

The need for America to recreate history in this manner was explored several years ago by Ira Glass on the popular NPR (National Public Radio) show, This American Life. He looked at the particularly American need to recreate history in ‘maniacal detail’. This program examines how the ways in which we chose to display and create our environments may be linked to our status as a relatively ‘new’ country trying to understand and develop a sense of identity and history as a nation. As well, Glass suggests that a defining characteristic of American life is to create new communities and shed the past. In museums, themeparks, restaurants and shopping malls alike we are simply doing in miniature what we do for real in our culture. Definitely worth a listen...

ALPML, indeed, uses showmanship...but that isn’t necessarily what I am looking for when I go to a museum. This museum has blurred the lines between historical recreation and themepark, in what I’m sure is an attempt to meet AAM guidelines to make museums more attractive to visitors and more representative of the populations they are trying to include. A quote from their website reads,

‘As you can see, our primary objective in The Journey is not to fully explain all of the issues that confronted Lincoln but to inspire in the ordinary visitor a deep sense of personal connection and empathy with the man.’

To me, this museum serves as a great example of the mistakes that museums can make when they think that they are making museums more inclusive and accessible to audiences in the 21st century. The exhibits did not seem to display an inclusive, well-rounded look at the life of an influential man in the history of our nation. The exhibits do not naturally promote dialogue and critical thinking. From the above statement, the museum clearly has very specific views of what they want the exhibits to achieve. The museum presents a carefully planned didactic narrative to impart on its visitors, for what purposes I am unsure. Could it be a propaganda technique...an attempt to increase patriotic morale in a time when our country is, again, deeply divided, this time by the growing dissatisfaction with the current administration and the current war in Iraq (in the 2004 election there was widespread discussion, largely sarcastic, of seceding and forming a new country comprised of the ‘blue’ states)? Or is it simply the whim of an eccentric, personally motivated curator?

Sadly, it is hard for me to come to terms with the way that Lincoln was represented. When I think about what we as Americans are taught about Lincoln in history class it doesn’t coincide with the image and purposes of this museum dedicated to him. Lincoln is generally viewed as the epitome of honesty, humbleness and perseverance to task, a critical and fair diplomat. This museum, in its display and apparent mission seems contrary to the lifestyle and character of the man himself. As well, what we learn about Lincoln through high school curriculum is not given a space to be debated because we are not given an opportunity in the exhibits to critically examine and re-think this man whose life is surrounded by myth and legend.

The target audience for this museum is clearly families and children. From my observations it appears to be achieving its goal of making history come alive. As I was pushing through a crowded gallery, I overheard a teenager (who quite frankly looked like he could care-less) say, “Man, this place is awesome.” and his cohorts excitedly agreed. It is a shame, in my eyes, that these students could not have a more balanced exhibit in which to have a positive experience with a museum and history itself.

4 comments:

Mette said...

Thanks for an inspiring review! It deals with some of the issues that I am concerned with at the moment. How do we support the museum users’ own experiences, but at the same time inspire to a deeper and more reflective response to culture and heritage – more than just a superficial sensuous experiences? It is a question of accepting a monological judgement of culture with the pluralist universalism, which this entails or trying to encourage to a debate, where arguments are accepted. Or said in another way, should the museum give exciting experiences, which a large group of people will enjoy or try to be ambitious on behalf of this same group and motivate to critical thinking. It is great to hear the response from a teenager that he enjoys the exhibit and there must be a way to sustain this enjoyment, but at the same time establish a debate between museum and user.
Could the museum fx. be more frank and open about their own position and their particular perspective and in that way establish itself as a position in a dialogue? This would mean more politically active museums, which might course other problems. The other way out as far as I can see is to developed the multi-perspective exhibitions - this could easily have been done in the case of Lincoln exhibition. However, I am not so sure this position is desirable. Often it ends up as a very politically correct exhibition, more concerned with bias than with the content itself and, and this is more important, it inspires to the view that all opinions are equally valid, which slides towards this monological view of culture, which does anything but encourage reflection and debate. Any other views on this?

Ceri said...

Great review!

It touches upon many of the questions I am asking at the moment with how to present history - Mette, your comments were also very interesting and touched on a lot of issues so I am going to try and think about this in relation to what we want from our history.

I think history can be nothing more than the present seeking to come to terms with itself... rather than an interest in the past for itself. The "Hollywoodization" of Lincoln's life seems to be a part of this need to mythologise the past in order to create glory for the present (as it will be inevitable that glorious men begat more glorious men).

Yet... can we assume that visitors are passively picking up all the messages that the museum consciously or unconsciously wants them to absorb? There is growing evidence that visitors make their own meaning despite what the museum wants them to think... and I have a feeling that the growth of the Internet, of Blogs etc will encourage people to have their own opinion on a range of subjects, including the life and times of Lincoln. Surely it is not only Museum professionals or students such as we who are critical of what they see? Even if we, as pessimistic theorists suggest, are only given the illusion of free choice and the 'right' to an opinion (as long as it is the correct opinion) I think we would be surprised by the reactions of visitors. If we allow our opinions of visitors to fixate on them as passive recipients of museum 'texts' then we are doing them a disservice I think. However, by dressing up a museum as ultimately a fun experience the danger is that this will prevent visitors from thinking critically... and I would agree with that to some extent. So, by not explicitly creating a dialogue between it and its visitors, the museum perhaps prevents visitors from feeling that their opinion is valued... and they will be so absorbed / engulfed by the museum's fx that they will not have the capacity to develop alternative views. Perhaps this is the intention... perhaps most museums do not want to be questioned, they want to luxuriate in their trusted position as guardians of the nation's 'history' and to shape that history? And this museum seems to be tapping into the need for a hero President, something that has been perhaps missing of late.

So yes, a museum of propaganda. But I would question if history can be anything else, tied up as it is with questions of 'nation' and 'identity' of that nation.

Amy said...

Hey Christa!

Following on from Mette and Ceri's comments, I was wondering who's behind the museum? Is it state-funded, or privately run (I'm not clear on how museums are funded in America)? If it's an independent, privately run, privately financed institution, then that kind of would explain the single narrative approach in many ways and make it -somewhat- excusable (i.e. it would be the project of an interest group with a particular agenda). However, if the museum was state or federally funded (???) the overall interpretive approach could be a little more concerning, and could be perceived as overtly propagandist, especially - as you point out - in the current political climate. Just goes to show what a powerful tool for the nation/for the promotion of an 'official' history museums have the potential to be. But, then again, I'd like to think that - like Ceri points out - visitors don't just absorb the 'message' without question. Really fascinating stuff. Thanks! :)

daliel said...

Very Good review.
As a Springfieldian who has visited the ALPLM several times with out of town familily, I have seen some varied reactions from them. Over all it is a place that is trying to educate the non-informed in a 21st century way- short sound bites. While the museum lacks certain historical contexts i.e. Lincoln's growth of political thought, I consider it a "level one" to opening up history. Deeper levels can be found next door in the world class Lincoln Presidential Library.

How many visitors go to the former and passs right by the latter is mindbloggling to me.

Additionally, the context of Springfield as the "new frontier" in the 1830-1850 period is de-emphasized. Springfield went from raw frontier to civilized in the wink of an historical eye and Lincoln was a part of the development of the social order of a frontier.

If Springfifeld can develop this intertwing web of levels through other museums and activities then some of the constructive criticism of "official history" can be ameliorated and the questioning mind opened. And if the ALPLM is the key to open a young mind then so be it.