As part of the research for our upcoming book,* we’ve been traveling around the country visiting presidential libraries and historical sites. And you can travel along with us—virtually!—by reading our review of each place we visit. (Note that in this first installment, you’ll also be traveling through time, because we visited the Lincoln Presidential Library on Labor Day and are only now getting around to posting this. A terrifying insight into our work process!)
*It’s true! Hottest Heads of State: The American Presidents, coming out from Henry Holt & Co. Look for it in early 2018! Or go ahead and start looking for it now, and by the time it comes out, you’ll feel like you’ve really earned it.
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
Adults: $15 | Children (ages 5-15): $6
Kate: As we pulled up to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, it occurred to me that it is not a great place to begin this series, because after this every other presidential library is going to be a huge letdown. We should have started with Herbert Hoover.
JD: As we pulled up, it occurred to me that they might be closed on Labor Day. But instead it was overrun with employees whose apparent sole job was to chat us up. I would’ve had more coffee if I knew I was going to be talking to this many strangers about Abraham Lincoln.
Kate: Maybe that’s just what life is like in Springfield, Illinois! You’ll be walking through the grocery store, and then a stranger stops you to point out that Abraham Lincoln was the only president to obtain a patent.
JD: I did think the museum would benefit by hiring some Lincoln critics. They could sidle up to you while you admired Lincoln’s stovepipe hat and whisper, “Don’t believe what you’ve read in the history books—Lincoln was fat.”
Kate: We didn’t even make it out of the entrance hall before a friendly security guard stopped us to point out that there was a penny on the floor, hidden in the tilework. He encouraged my daughter to take the penny, at which point he immediately replaced it with a penny out of his pocket. I spent the rest of our visit trying to work out a scheme to get more free pennies by employing a series of disguises.
Kate: If you follow the advice of the half dozen museum employees who greet you on the way in, you’ll begin your journey by walking through a replica of the log cabin where Lincoln grew up. Don’t make the mistake of telling your 5-year-old that it’s a replica of the log cabin where Lincoln was born, because you will be sternly rebuked by a woman in old-timey clothes who is pretending to knit while eavesdropping on private conversations.
JD: I forget what her rebuke was. Was it that he wasn’t actually born in a log cabin? Or that he was, but not this log cabin? Or that it wasn’t a replica? Honestly, I wonder if she even worked at the museum.
Kate: I assumed she was a ghost.
JD: If she was, then I mean, chill out! You’re a ghost! Enjoy getting to spend eternity at the Lincoln Library! But anyhow, the cabin in question was an amazing replica, and it also looked like a horrible place to live. Have you ever dreamed of living in a tiny, smoky, dark, cluttered room, with your parents and a snoring dog? No? Well, then maybe you’re not cut out to be president.
Kate: After that you pass through a series of scenes from Abraham Lincoln’s life—Lincoln working in a store, meeting Mary Todd, debating Stephen Douglas, etc. I loved it, because I could get the gist of what was going on without having to read anything. (I hate reading.)
JD: And that is how Kate learned that before he became president, Abraham Lincoln was the manager of a boisterous day-care service in Springfield, where he just kicked back and drank Moscow Mules all day.
Kate: Also, I guess there was some kind of war? Who knows.
JD: You DID have to read the exhibit placards to see that they describe Reconstruction as “sometimes vengeful and unforgiving.” I found this a little frustrating because we are at the ABRAHAM LINCOLN library. Even here, we have to frame Reconstruction as too hard on the Confederate states? Folks, listen: Reconstruction did not go nearly far enough, and it ended far too soon. But I digress. In contrast to my feelings about that placard, I had very positive feelings about the fake trees. I consider myself to be something of a fake tree connoisseur, and my comment on these fake trees is *touches lips and makes kissing sound like a chef*
Kate: After Lincoln is elected president, you get to walk inside a giant replica of the White House. I felt like I had just been elected president. And when you get inside, it’s just a big room filled with fancy dresses. The presidency is everything that I dreamed it would be!
JD: If you like fancy dresses, then you should make this room your final stop at the Lincoln Library. Just turn around and go home and let your memories be of log cabins, fake trees, and fancy dresses. On the other hand, if you like war, child mortality, crushing depression, and the assassination of beloved national heroes, then stick around, because you’re going to love the next few rooms!
Kate: I did ask if we could leave after the fancy dress room, and you said “no.”
JD: I wasn’t talking to you, I was talking to myself. I was feeling sad that the other society women of Washington were mean to Mary Todd and saying “No, no, no” to myself. Didn’t you notice that I was crying?
Kate: I did. I just didn’t care.
JD: If the room about Mary Todd Lincoln and her social adversaries and their dresses doesn’t make you cry, don’t worry, because you still have the “Lincoln’s Laying in State” exhibit to look forward to. Actually, should that be lying or laying?
Kate: Wait, what? I thought he was just sleeping!
JD: It is my understanding that wax figures never sleep.
Kate: On our way out, a museum employee stopped us and insisted that we touch a swatch of the rubber skin that covers the life-sized Lincoln figures that populate the museum. It was exactly like what happens at the zoo when you’re looking at zebras and a zoo docent walks up with a strip of zebra hide and forces you to touch it. It was just like that!
JD: I have had a terrifying vision of the future and it is this: Presidential candidates scrape a few skin cells into a petri dish, and campaign scientists use those cells to grow artificial slabs of the candidate’s skin in vats. At political rallies, campaign workers walk around the crowd with samples and invite people to touch a piece of the candidate’s skin. Or maybe eat it! Who knows.
JD: Right outside the Cafe is a sign that reads “Please help us protect the artifacts, please no food or drink in the museum.” But what it should really say is “Please help us protect the artifacts from Subway,” because the museum cafe turned out to be a Subway. And yet, there was no one there to protect us from Subway!
Kate: When I asked one of the ubiquitous museum employees for directions to the cafe, he hesitated for a second before answering. Now I feel like he was trying to warn me.
JD: Unlike most Subways, this Subway featured big, blown-up photos on the walls of bedraggled Civil War soldiers glumly eating their rations, as if to say, “Hey, at least you’ve got it better than these guys!” But honestly, my lunch was fine. It’s hard to go wrong with salt and vinegar chips.
Kate: I would have really liked to see some Lincoln-themed sandwiches on the menu. I’ve even taken the liberty of coming up with a few sandwich names for them: “The Rail Splitter.” “The Great Emancipator.” “Mary Todd’s Famous Chicken Teriyaki.”
JD: A sandwich called The Rail Splitter should be a quadruple serving of roast beef covered in jalapenos, with no bread, and you have to eat it with your hands, off of an axe head.
Kate: The ambiance also left something to be desired.
JD: Well, it’s better than the ambiance in the average Subway. I’d say it’s in the top tenth percentile of Subway ambiances, based on my experience. You can look out the windows and see the Springfield town square where Lincoln’s body was brought by train after his assassination. You were probably going to be contemplating death while you ate your footlong sub anyhow, so you might as well contemplate Lincoln’s.
Kate: Regarding the ambiance, apparently you said, “I like how empty it is.” I wrote that down in my notes.
JD: Empty, like the hole left in America’s heart by (spoiler alert!) the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
The Gift Shop
Kate: The gift shop is great. It’s very large, and all of the wood paneling made me feel like I was shopping inside the White House itself, like if they were having some kind of garage sale.
JD: If you’re looking to convert your savings into giant novelty pennies, this is a good place to do it.
Kate: You could also convert your savings into giant chocolate pennies.
JD: If you’re going to convert your savings into giant pennies, go with chocolate. Climate change is going to reduce the global supply of chocolate, so your chocolate pennies will just get more and more valuable as the years pass.
Kate: This should be a regular feature: In each presidential library review we write, JD will give one piece of financial planning advice.
JD: I kind of hate to give that away for free, but I suppose it will mean people will have plenty of disposable income to pre-order our book.
Kate: I definitely plan to go back to this gift shop to do my Christmas shopping. Stove pipe hats for all!
JD: I want you to get me one of those $400 blown-glass stovepipe hats for Christmas. But I don’t want you to spend $400 out of our pooled finances on a decorative glass hat. So, you’re going to need to shoplift it. I suggest tucking it inside an actual stovepipe hat and wearing it out.
Kate: To be clear, we do not endorse shoplifting from the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library gift shop. But only because it might undermine our efforts to convince them to carry our book.
Should I bring my kids?
JD: Our 5-year-old daughter’s take on the museum was, “I don’t really like Abraham Lincoln, and he died, so that’s good.” Which is not the message the Lincoln Library wants to you walk away with.
Kate: Compared to other presidential libraries, this one is pretty kid-friendly. The exhibits include a lot of life-sized dioramas and special effects that your children will find mildly interesting. It’s basically like taking them to Epcot in 1988.
JD: Although to be clear, if you can somehow take your kids to Epcot in 1988, you should do that instead.
Kate: Maybe you’ll be able to stop Epcot from getting rid of Horizons.
JD: Some parents might want to quickly walk past the scene where Lincoln’s young son Willie dies of typhoid. Other parents may want to use this as a teachable moment on “and that’s why you have to stop drinking your bathwater.”
Kate: You should also be prepared to talk to your kids about slavery, specifically the fact that it existed. About ten seconds into the museum there’s a wrenching scene of a family being separated at a slave auction. My daughter thought it was depicting some kind choir performance, and I did not correct her.
JD: If you think explaining slavery to a kindergartner sounds fun, just wait till you try explaining it in a small, quiet room surrounded by strangers.
Kate: After forcing your children to learn about the life of Abraham Lincoln, you can reward them by taking them to “Mary’s Attic,” a super fun play room that has everything your kids need to act out their fantasy of living in the 19th century.
JD: “Mary’s Attic” was a pretty big hit with the kids, despite sounding like the saddest consignment shop ever.
Kate: It has dress-up clothes, play food, Lincoln logs, and a huge dollhouse that I really would have enjoyed playing with if my kids would just get out of the way.
JD: They could sell that dollhouse in the gift shop and Kate would have offered to trade them our actual house for it. And our actual house is in a more expensive real estate market, and slightly bigger!
Kate: There were also a bunch of old-timey toys that no one wanted to play with, because ugh, boring.
JD: I disagree completely on the old-timey toys. I think I really blew the security guard’s mind with my skills at “cup-and-ball,” which is a name I made up for the old-timey toy where you’ve got a stick with a cup attached to a ball by a string. I probably got the ball into the cup like one out of every fifty times.
Kate: I hit myself in the face with the ball and the security guard laughed at me.
What would you change?
JD: I guess I’d make the museum free? Or have them pay me to visit? But other than that I probably wouldn’t change anything. This museum is wonderful and it will totally turn you around on Abraham Lincoln, if you’re one of those people who doesn’t like Abraham Lincoln.
Kate: Everything about the Abraham Lincoln museum is top-notch and that’s why I don’t understand why the cafe is a Subway.
Kate: The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is definitely one of my favorite spots in central Illinois.
JD: It is such an amazing museum that you feel like maybe the state of Illinois’ huge budget problems are worth it.
Kate: It does feel like a vast sum of money has been put into that place. But in a good way! Did you ever want to be inside a log cabin? You will! Did you ever want to attend a slave auction? You will! Did you ever want to go to a funeral? You will! When I put it that way it sounds like kind of a downer, but I promise, it is an amazing experience.
JD: Like greeting card commercials, the true measure of a museum is whether it makes you cry, and I cried three times: When Lincoln’s son Willie died, when Lincoln showed magnanimity in a defeated Richmond by asking a Confederate military band to play “Dixie” for him, and when he was assassinated.
Kate: Their slogan should be “Get ready to cry!”