Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum

Although the sixteenth president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, was born in the state of Kentucky, Illinois is commonly called the “Land of Lincoln.”  In fact, even the Illinois license plate has this phrase on it, as well as a depiction of Lincoln’s head.  This is because Lincoln lived in Illinois longer than he did in any other state. 

In 2005, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum opened in Illinois’ state capital of Springfield.  Originally, it was the Illinois State Historical Library, which first began collecting materials regarding the history of Illinois in 1889.  Since this library had a large Abraham Lincoln collection, people and the state eventually raised enough funds to transform it into the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.  However, despite its new name, it continues to collect non-Lincoln materials from Illinois history as well.

In 1939, President Franklin Roosevelt was the first U.S. President to donate his materials to the Federal Government specifically to create a presidential library.  Soon after that, it became mandatory for U.S. Presidents to do so.  Today, the U.S. National Archives runs the presidential libraries of Roosevelt, his predecessor Hoover, and every U.S. president after them.  A handful of earlier U.S. Presidents have their own presidential libraries, but these are all independently run by different groups, not the federal government.  The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is run by the state of Illinois.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum provides visitors with an interactive experience that makes the visit enjoyable to people who do not typically like museums.  For example, it includes a variety of lifelike dioramas from Lincoln’s life displayed throughout the Museum.  There is also a neat hologram movie that visitors can watch about Lincoln.  The Museum begins with Lincoln’s early years, continues through his careers as a clerk and lawyer, and eventually leads into his involvement with Illinois politics.  The second half of the Museum describes Lincoln’s presidential years, involvement in the U.S. Civil War, and eventual assassination.  Among the noteworthy items on display at the Museum are an original copy of the Gettysburg address, the quill pen Lincoln used to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, and the bloody gloves Lincoln wore at the time of his assassination.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library is a separate building across the street from the Museum.  As previously mentioned, it includes documents about Abraham Lincoln, but also has materials about the history of Illinois, including an oral history collection and useful resources for Illinois genealogists.  Additionally, the climate-controlled library building functions as the archives for the Museum, meaning that it also houses museum objects.

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum recently joined the Consortium of Academic and Research Libraries in Illinois (CARLI).  Since I used to work for another CARLI library member, I had the wonderful opportunity of attending two librarian events at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.  While there, I had a tour of their conservation lab, where they work on repairing documents, books, maps, etc.  The staff demonstrated how to wrap and carefully submerge stiff, rolled documents into water, in order to soften them up enough to eventually unroll them.  The staff also showed us the Museum’s archives, where we saw a few interesting items.  It fascinated me how they treated a jersey worn by a Chicago Blackhawks hockey player during a recent Stanley Cup win with the same amount of caution and precision as they did a handmade Civil War violin from 1863.

This encapsulation machine at the Abraham Lincoln Library’s conservation lab seals fragile documents between two strips of polyester film. The process only seals the edges of the polyester together, unlike lamination, which sticks the polyester onto the entire document. Since lamination uses heat, it causes more long-term damage and cannot be undone, whereas polyester can be removed from an encapsulated document.

If you have enough time in Springfield, you should also visit a few other Abraham Lincoln spots in the area.  The home that Lincoln lived in prior to his presidency is not far from the Museum.  It is owned by the National Park Service, which provides free 20-25 minute tours of the home daily (except during COVID-19, so take a virtual tour).  Also nearby is Lincoln’s large tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery.  Finally, about thirty minutes away is New Salem.  New Salem is a reconstruction of the small town that Lincoln lived in prior to living in Springfield.  It is now a living history museum, so you can walk inside the reconstructed log buildings while learning more about life in the town from the staff, who are dressed in nineteenth-century garb.  Interestingly, New Salem was reconstructed in the 1930s and early 1940s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a governmental program that provided unemployed young men with jobs during the Great Depression.

Abraham Lincoln’s Tomb at Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield

Sources and Further Reading
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. https://www2.illinois.gov/alplm/Pages/default.aspx (accessed October 3, 2020).

Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. http://lincolnlibraryandmuseum.com/index.htm (accessed October 3, 2020).

“Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum.” Visit Springfield Illinois. https://www.visitspringfieldillinois.com/LocationDetails/?id=Abraham-Lincoln-Presidential-Museum (accessed October 3, 2020).

“History.” Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. https://www2.illinois.gov/alplm/library/aboutus/Pages/History.aspx (accessed October 3, 2020).

“Lincoln Home.” National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/liho/index.htm (accessed October 3, 2020).

“Lincoln Home National Historic Site, National Park Service.” Google Arts & Culture. https://artsandculture.google.com/u/0/partner/lincoln-home-national-historic-site (accessed October 3, 2020).

“Lincoln Tomb.” Visit Springfield Illinois. https://www.visitspringfieldillinois.com/LocationDetails/?id=Lincoln-Tomb (accessed October 3, 2020).

“Lincoln’s New Salem.” Historic Preservation Division. Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. https://www2.illinois.gov/dnrhistoric/experience/sites/central/pages/new-salem.aspx (accessed October 3, 2020).

Perlman, Seth. “New Museum Brings All Sides of Abraham Lincoln to Life.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. April 17, 2005. https://www.post-gazette.com/life/travel/2005/04/18/New-museum-brings-all-sides-of-Abraham-Lincoln-to-life/stories/200504180116 (accessed October 3, 2020).

“Presidential Library History.” National Archives. https://www.archives.gov/presidential-libraries/about/history.html (accessed October 3, 2020).“Virtual Tour.” Lincoln’s New Salem. https://www.lincolnsnewsalem.com/ (accessed October 3, 2020).

The Henry Ford Museum

The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan (part of metropolitan Detroit) probably ranks among the best history museums in the United States.  I have not been there since 2006, so it may have changed a bit since then. 

Born in 1863, Henry Ford became famous for pioneering the concept of an assembly line.  Using this concept, he created the Model T automobile, which became a bestseller.  He helped make the first automobile that was affordable to the general public.  His legacy continues today under the Ford Motor Company, which still makes Ford cars.

A Ford Model T at The Henry Ford Museum

Due to his interest in inventions and innovations, Ford began collecting items that represented this interest.  Eventually, his collection grew to become The Henry Ford Museum.  After his childhood home was almost demolished, he saved it and moved it to an area right outside the Museum.  This triggered an interest in moving and restoring other historically significant buildings from throughout the United States.  Ultimately, this collection of historic buildings became Greenfield Village.

Today, tourists can visit the main Henry Ford Museum, Greenfield Village, and also take a Ford factory tour.  Each of these places have their own admission prices, none of which are cheap.  I have not done the factory tour, but have visited the other two locations.

The Henry Ford Museum is large, so I do not believe that I saw everything there.  However, two exhibits stood out to me the most.  The first was an automobile exhibit that contained a large variety of cars from throughout the 20th century, including some famous ones.  For instance, the Lincoln Continental limousine that President John F. Kennedy rode when he got shot on November 22, 1963 is on display there.

This is the limo that John F. Kennedy was shot in.

The second exhibit that I vividly remember was called “With Liberty and Justice for All.”  It provides a historical timeline of how people gained freedom in the United States, beginning with the American people gaining freedom from England during the Revolutionary War.  The exhibit then proceeds with other movements, such as the Woman’s Suffrage Movement and the Civil Rights Movement.  The former included a display about how women were often arrested for marching for their rights.  Then, while in prison, they often attempted to continue their protests by going on hunger strikes.  In response to this, the authorities would forcefully feed the women by using tubes to stuff food down their throats.  On August 18, 1920, it will be 100 years since women throughout the entire United States gained the right to vote.

The Chair That Abraham Lincoln Was Shot In

Another part of the “With Liberty and Justice for All” exhibit featured the African American Civil Rights movement.  This exhibit included the chair from Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C., which President Abraham Lincoln sat on when he was shot by John Wilkes Booth in 1865.  However, in my opinion, the exhibit’s highlight was the Montgomery, Alabama bus that Rosa Parks famously rode.  On December 1, 1955, Mrs. Parks refused to move to the back of the bus and give up her seat to a white passenger.  This led to the year-long Montgomery bus boycott, in which African Americans decided to stop using the Montgomery buses as a form of protest to their unequal treatment.  Museum visitors can sit on the same seat that Rosa Parks sat on.

Rosa Parks’ Bus

As previously mentioned, Greenfield Village began with Henry Ford’s boyhood home, but eventually grew to become an entire village of historical homes.  It is a living history museum, meaning that it attempts to recreate the past by allowing visitors to enter its buildings of varying ages.  The famous buildings that Henry Ford relocated to Greenfield Village include Thomas Edison’s workshop, where he invented the light bulb; the cabin of George Washington Carver, who invented peanut butter; the home of Noah Webster, who compiled a famous dictionary; and the home of the Wright Brothers, who invented the first successful airplane.  Although moving buildings from their original locations somewhat detracts their historical significance, at least they are being well-preserved in their new location.

You can see this 1832 bridge in Greenfield Village. Ford saved the Ackley Covered Bridge from demolition in 1937.

The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village are definitely worth a visit, especially if you are interested in U.S. history.

Sources and Further Reading

American Experience: Henry Ford. Directed by Sarah Colt. Boston: WGBH, 2013.

“History and Mission.” The Henry Ford. https://www.thehenryford.org/history-and-mission/henry-ford-collector/ (accessed May 29, 2020).