Yesterday, I took my daughter to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois, and was very impressed. They have two multimedia presentations, one that uses video, special effects, lighting, and vibrating seats to lay the groundwork for Lincoln’s role in the Civil War and his assassination at Ford’s Theater. The other is “Ghosts In The Library,” which uses the best hologram effects I’ve experienced since seeing John McEnroe in the Wimbledon museum locker room. It’s a stunning piece of technology.
In a more traditional vein, there’s also an exhibit called “Packaging Presidents,” about the way presidential campaigns have changed through the years, from 1828 through today. Why nothing earlier? Because the politicians of that time thought it unseemly to “run” for office. Back in the days when most Americans had no role in choosing their president — only the elite and the well-connected were involved, and they were all white property owners — the men who wanted to be president weren’t out barnstorming the country trying to convince the electorate to choose them. To the contrary, candidates like Jefferson and Adams spent most of their time at home while surrogates wrote occasional propaganda pieces for supportive newspapers.
The exhibit includes over 350 historical items used to promote the candidates, from buttons that promoted Andrew Jackson for President in 1828 to the WBBM-TV camera that broadcast the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon Debates. And in case you think modern campaigns are uglier than earlier ones, see the 1884 magazine commentary about Grover Cleveland fathering a child out of wedlock — he confirmed the story and was elected — and the first use of “family values” as a campaign argument in 1888 when Cleveland, recently married, lost his re-election effort.
The exhibit runs through this Sunday (1/4/09), but even if you miss it, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is well worth the visit.