The theater seats tremble, and cannon bursts rock the room as a Civil War battle is played out on multiple moving screens that bob up and down. Welcome to the just opened Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, Ill.--or, as historian John Simon derisively calls it, "Six Flags over Lincoln." The museum, which is scheduled to have its public dedication this week, has weathered years of cost complaints, construction snafus and accusations of mismanagement. Now the museum is open for visitors--and for debate over whether it has done justice to the 16th President or turned him into a theme-park ride.
The $115 million complex is the most comprehensive Lincoln exhibit so far and the only presidential library run by a state government. It has 1,500 manuscripts, including a copy of the Gettysburg Address in Lincoln's handwriting, and troves of artifacts like his small wooden deathbed. It's also the glitziest presidential museum, a special-effects parade of ghostly holograms and mannequin Abes. "Lincoln is presented in a way people can easily digest," said executive director Richard Norton Smith. "If you want the icon, go to the memorial."
Yet some historians have begun to criticize the museum, saying there's too much razzle-dazzle and not enough scholarship. "The rubber Lincolns make him remote, strange and mythological," says Simon, of Southern Illinois University. "They've made him into a vulgar creature, not unlike Ronald McDonald welcoming you to his hamburger place." Counters Harold Holzer, a Lincoln scholar and co-chairman of the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission: "In an era where we battle iPods and MTV for attention, anything that encourages future exploration is good." --By Kristin Kloberdanz