A recently finalized $858,000 contract for research and development is the first step by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum to augment its exhibits on the 16th president's story with the latest in interactive digital technology from Google.
Current displays at the almost 20-year-old, state-operated museum at 212 N. Sixth St. in Springfield won't go away. Instead, the partnership with Google will allow visitors to use their smartphones and tablets to access additional "layers of information," ALPLM spokesperson Chris Wills said.
"We think that we can really be groundbreaking here," he said.
This is the museum's first major investment in new storytelling tools and techniques since the ALPLM opened, and the project could end with the Springfield site becoming one of the first museums in the country to offer such enhancements for visitors, he said.
ALPLM recently kicked off a 10-week planning phase with officials from Chicago-based Thoughtworks, a company working with Google. They are speaking with museum visitors, tagging along with school groups and looking into ways technology that wasn't available when the museum opened could be embedded in existing exhibits, Wills said.
After Thoughtworks presents its recommendations and ALPLM officials agree on how to proceed, a year-long implementation phase will begin, he said. The new technology could be ready for visitors by spring 2024 or later.
ALPLM didn't need to use the bidding process before working out the $858,000 contract, Wills said. That's because of the Illinois Department of Innovation and Technology's recently signed 10-year master contract with Indianapolis-based Resultant LLC to provide Google professional services and products to state government.
Gov. JB Pritzker's proposed budget for the fiscal year 2024 includes $26.1 million for the ALPLM and includes $6 million that Resultant would receive to put into place the technology improvements. "We will also be exploring support from donors as a way to reduce the state's cost," Wills said.
As part of its services, Google would create assisted visual guides for people with disabilities and content for non-English-speaking guests, he said.
A news release on the ALPLM's collaboration with Google said the partnership would use "artificial intelligence, extended reality and augmented reality technologies hosted on Google Cloud to create accessible, engaging and interactive experiences for visitors."
For ease of use, the improvements wouldn't require visitors to wear virtual reality headsets, Wills said.
"We wanted something to be simple ... and not too much of a barrier for users," he said.
Visitors who don't have compatible smartphones or other devices would be able to rent them at the museum, Wills said.
At present, ALPLM officials don't plan to provide digital devices for the many schoolchildren who visit the museum. "Schools can choose to ensure that all students have a device if they want to, or the students can simply enjoy the museum as it is now," Wills said.
ALPLM, which includes the presidential research library at 112 N. Sixth St., was built with about $150 million in federal and state funds. More than 5 million guests have been welcomed to the museum since its opening in 2005, Wills said. The library portion opened in 2004.
Admissions dropped in the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 but have rebounded somewhat since then, Wills said.
The low point during the pandemic was calendar year 2020, when there were 42,590 visitors to the museum, library and Union Station, compared with 231,151 in 2019, he said. There were 123,124 visitors in 2021 and 175,129 in 2022, he said.
When the museum first opened its doors, Wills said, "Visitors were wowed by our unique mix of technology and immersive exhibits telling President Lincoln's story. We were able to connect people to the past in ways that no other museum could match." Many museums around the country followed ALPLM's example, he said.
Once the improvements now in motion are completed, Wills said, "We expect to once again offer visitors an unmatched museum experience."
Dean Olsen is a senior staff writer at Illinois Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 217-679-7810 or twitter.com/DeanOlsenIT.