Another Lincoln birthday month has come and gone, and this one was busier than most. We learned that the Mary Todd Lincoln that had looked down from an oil portrait in the Executive Mansion for more than 30 years isn’t the president’s wife after all. The painting was removed as fraudulent, but I think it should have stayed, considering that the building has hosted many a governor who turned out not to be the person he said he was, either.
Attendees at the Abraham Lincoln Association symposium gathered at Brookens to hear a speaker attempt to distinguish myths from realities about the Emancipation Proclamation, with rather more astuteness, I hear, than has been shown by journalists covering the Republican primary candidates’ assertions about deficits, taxes, religious freedom and homosexuality.
At Abe World downtown, the three most significant of Illinois’ public collection of Lincoln papers were dusted off and put “on display,” in the same sense in which Safe House or the Woman in Black may be said to have been on display that week at the Showplace on Dirksen. Curious citizens had to pay $12 apiece to get in to see them. I don’t recall having been taught as a boy that the duties of citizenship were like customs duties, levied on transactions between a citizen and his own nation’s history; maybe I was sick that day.
Finally, Abe World hosted an invite-only preview of clips from the upcoming film, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. The museum staff seemed more excited than the public, it must be said. A cast that features veterans of such productions as Live Free Or Die Hard, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and Captain America: The First Avenger would not have impressed the old-timers who in 1939 attended the world premier downtown (at the Lincoln Theatre, of course) of John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, starring Henry Fonda.
I can understand why Abe World might find itself comfortable consorting with Hollywood schlockmeisters. The museum’s governing aesthetic is essentially cinematic, after all, and like film producers, the people in charge of Abe World understand their mission in essentially box office terms. Abe World appears to be heading toward the sixth consecutive year of attendance declines, so it’s natural that they consider all manner of gimmicks to get the suckers in the door.
Don’t get me wrong. I love genre-blending send-ups. I have in my desk a nearly-finished movie screenplay starring the governor as a state agency superhero. (The working title is, Pat Quinn, Toner Changer.) I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that using the late president to push a dumb movie is actually less offensive than using him to sell sucker bets to the poor via the state lottery, the way Illinois does; at least the poor get to see a film when they shell out for a movie ticket. Nor do I have a principled objection to exploiting Lincoln to make a buck; I did it myself, in 1974 when I published a faux almanac of Springfield lore and titled it Honest Abe’s Honest Almanac.
On the other hand, I am not a Presidential museum whose stated mission is “to collect, preserve, interpret, and promote the study of the life and times of Abraham Lincoln and Illinois history.”
Last summer, you might recall, the museum gave away tickets for the World Wrestling Entertainment show at the convention center. A museum official told the SJ-R, “We know Lincoln was a wrestler at New Salem....It seemed like a natural fit.” Too natural a fit, in my opinion. The differences between the village match in which Lincoln took on the champion of the Clary’s Grove boys and the Six Man Tag Team Match that pitted the Undertaker team with John Cena and “The R Rated Superstar” Edge against “The Animal” Batista, Sheamus and “The Legend Killer” Randy Orton are mainly matters of theatrical art. The difference between the WWE and Abe World is...well, there isn’t any.
A top official at the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency has justified such dubious commercial tie-ins “as long as we’re careful to tie in to Lincoln or Lincoln’s legacy, however tenuously.” Lord knows what kind of acts will get booked into the Museum Plaza when museum officials remember that ol’ Abe liked to tell an off-color story. And it seems only a matter of time before the gift shop will stock Abe dolls with exploding heads for the kids.
Ultimately, of course, the problem is not that the museum panders to its public, but that history doesn’t really have much of a public in a nation that purports to love its country but is indifferent to understanding it. Jim Edgar was right when he observed that visitors to a traditional ordinary museum about Lincoln’s life would be “bored to death.” If that is true, we have scarier things to worry about than vampires.
Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.