Many years ago, I made my first visit to the Illinois State Historical Library in its handsome but cramped new quarters beneath the Old State Capitol. Having time to kill while waiting for the staff to fetch me a book, I wandered up the stairs to the mezzanine that overlooked the reading room. There, in flat display cases lining the aisle, I noticed a pair of spectacles. The eyeglasses were one of the library’s collection of what are known to fastidious librarians as artifacts, but what most of the rest of the world calls relics, belonging to Abraham Lincoln.
There in the library I, who am as vulnerable to the power of words as anyone, was surrounded by words about Lincoln. But those glasses brought home to me more powerfully than words had ever done the elusive reality of the man. I am therefore a believer in the power of the real, and do not automatically reject its exploitation as vulgar popularizing.
One of the museums that harnessed that power in the service of teaching about the past was the Chicago Historical Society. In its Civil War Room were 20 painted dioramas that told the story of the martyred President – primitive precursors to the holographic extravaganzas on offer at Abe World, which is the name that ought to be on the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield. Displayed in the Chicago Historical Society’s nearby Lincoln Gallery were those of his personal belongings collected by museum benefactors – house slippers and shawl, umbrella and hat, his boyhood lesson book, even furniture from the parlor of the house in Springfield.
More than two generations of visitors regarded this Lincoln Gallery as a kind of shrine, which is why some years ago a new generation of curators dismantled it with the same sense of purpose, if not the same violence, with which Puritans smashed statuary and crosses during the English civil wars. Rather than a medium of meaning, the object under them becomes a target of analysis.
If one accepts that such displays were in fact a place to worship one of history’s Great Men, one has to share their qualm. But I think it is more often the case that people respond to these intimate personal objects because they are a place to experience transcendence. The man does not make the objects holy; the objects spookily make the past present. The artifacts on display at all good museums, whether it is Abraham Lincoln’s beaver hat or a finely crafted clay pot made by the Illinois Hopewell, allow us to reach across eras this way.
As long ago as the 1960s, historians in charge of the Illinois State Historical Library were facing the central dilemma of the trade: How to communicate with a public that understood history not in terms of words and ideas (the librarian’s traditional stock in trade) but images and feelings. Referring in 1966 to plans to put some of its artifacts on display in the Old State Capitol then a-building, State Historian Clyde Walton told the New York Times, “We hope visitors will go out with little chills going up their spines as well as knowing a little more about Lincoln.”
Knowing a little more about Lincoln often does not seem the point to Walton’s successors in charge of Abe World. They have no qualm about harnessing the power of the real as Lincoln might have harnessed a plow horse. They do so in service of … what?
Well, that’s the problem. This February, visitors to Abe World will get a chance to feel that magic during “a special after-hours viewing vigil” in which visitors will be able to gaze contemplatively upon the Emancipation Proclamation and the inkwell Lincoln used when he wrote his First Inaugural Address, or, as we probably ought to render it in print, The Inkwell Used By Lincoln When He Wrote His First Inaugural Address.
Offering up such second-order relics to veneration could be dismissed as merely silly, if it did not distort the public’s sense of what matters about history. Rather than make the important seem real, it makes the trivial seem important. Worse in a museum that claims to give the public the real Lincoln, it offends the truth about what was a very humble man.
Such displays raise delicate issues of decorum and relevance, but decorum and relevance are not the first two words that come to mind when one thinks of Abe World. In their hands, vigils for holy inkwells are gimcrackery with extra sauce — perfect for an institution that is a cross between a reliquary and Madame Tussaud’s.
Contact James Krohe Jr. at email@example.com.