Imagineering Abe

Fireworks. A footrace with runners in stovepipe hats and beards. A latex replica of John Wilkes Booth. And historians debating whether our sixteenth president was gay. It could only be the inauguration of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum last April in Springfield, IL.

This was no ordinary museum opening—it's not every day President Bush shows up to dedicate a building, and 20,000 people turn out for four days of festivities. But this is no ordinary museum; it's a $90-million "experience museum," according to the head of the design firm behind its exhibits (who, not coincidentally, used to work for Walt Disney). "We're making history exciting to a 21st-century audience," declares museum director Richard Norton Smith, who oversaw preparations for the opening ceremony. Today's museums, he explains, must compete with TV, video games, movies, and, yes, Disney.

Spirit of the (18)60s

The event required a staff of 25 and hundreds of volunteers, according to museum spokesman David Blanchette, who handled arrangements for the 400 members of the media who came. Other staffers dealt with the White House and Secret Service, as well as more mundane details like fencing, the public-address system, and seating for 12,000.

Besides the sexuality debates and look-alikes, there were high-level officials in attendance: the President and First Lady, House Speaker and Illinois Congressman Dennis Hastert, Illinois Senators Barack Obama and Dick Durbin, and Governor Rod Blagojevich. There was an 1860s-style dinner fundraiser at the convention center, with waiters in period costume serving period chow (roast pheasant, cake with fruit sauce).

One detail that didn't replicate the 1860s was security, largely outsourced to the Secret Service and Department of Homeland Security. Since the museum is in downtown, area buildings with sight lines to the complex had to be secured; also, parking was blocked off, dogs were dispatched to sniff bombs, and guards had just three hours to get all 20,000 attendees of Bush's speech through metal detectors and into their seats.

Kitsch as Kitsch Can

The 100,000-square-foot museum houses a handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address and one of Lincoln's stovepipe hats, but it's the "Lincoln Lite" gimmicks—fake campaign commercials, dioramas of Abe outside a log cabin and inside Ford's Theater—that are more likely to lure the million or so people who visit Illinois' Lincoln-related sites annually. Then there's the 4,500 square feet of event space (the entire facility is also available for takeovers), plus an additional 8,500 square feet next door at the library.

As for the criticism that the complex blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction, museum staffers are hardly concerned. "We feel that it is precisely this blurring of boundaries that enables the exhibits to so effectively capture children's imaginations," counters Smith. Not only was the event a smashing success, he adds, but "we've had thousands of kids come through already who are genuinely excited, and adults who have told us that it was much more sophisticated than they expected."