LINCOLN — A playbill on the wall advertises “Our American Cousin” at Ford's Theater. You walk through the door and are transported by sight and sound back to April 14, 1865.
As you get comfortable on a cushioned couch, you hear the sound of a gunshot and realize, this is not the old Lincoln Heritage Museum.
The new museum, which had its grand opening at Lincoln College on Saturday, is located in 9,000 square feet of the Lincoln Center on the north edge of campus. A little over half of that is exhibit space, said museum director Rob Keller. The rest is archival storage and office space. By comparison, the old museum had just 1,000 square feet of exhibit space.
The new museum meets the needs of those who just want to see items connected with Abraham Lincoln and others who want to be entertained while being informed, Keller said.
Taylor Studios designed the new museum. Based in Rantoul, it has a national reputation for doing “a lot of work in making history come alive,” Keller said.
Lincoln College President John Blackburn said, “We're excited about it. It's good for the community. It's good for the college.”
The college, chartered in 1865 as Lincoln University, is the only college named after Lincoln during his lifetime.
The museum began in 1942 with just a few busts and books, said Keller, noting, “We've been adding to it ever since.”
The first-floor gallery displays objects connected to Lincoln and his times, grouping them by time period and subject matter, such as the Civil War, to provide more context.
Keller pointed to a chair that was used by Lincoln's children, Willie and Tad. A mirror in the display case lets the viewer see the back of the chair where Tad carved his name with a pocket knife.
“These were real people,” Keller said.
On the second floor, visitors walk through a review of Lincoln's life, as if he is seeing it pass by after being shot.
During this “life review,” a clock ticks in the background. "It is a reminder of our own mortality," Keller said.
As people go through this section of the museum, they can touch highlighted objects — a book, a plow, a quilt — and trigger audio recordings.
“All of the exhibits up here are made for you to be part of them,” said Anne Moseley, assistant museum director, as she showed visitors the second floor. “Up here, no alarm bells will go off. You can be involved in the exhibits and touch everything.”
Keller and Moseley said the museum has several spaces that lend themselves to using costumed guides and actors, or even school children, for "living history" re-enactments. This includes recreation of a courtroom from the Postville Courthouse in Lincoln, where Lincoln practiced law.
The museum tries to focus on stories other museums gloss over, such as Lincoln's days as a lawyer in Central Illinois.
You hear the words of John Stuart, William Herndon and Stephen Logan, who influenced his legal career.
Bloomington attorney and Lincoln expert Guy Fraker, who wrote a book about Lincoln's days as a circuit-riding lawyer, said, "I'm delighted to see that kind of attention to that important part of his life, which ultimately led to his development as the president he was."
Blackburn thinks the museum will help Lincoln become "the third part of the triangle," drawing visitors who also stop at Lincoln sites in Springfield and Bloomington.
“We have a museum design that meets the needs of those who want a little more pizzaz,” Keller said. “You have to make history tangible. You've got to make history relatable.”
One way the museum is doing the latter is through its motto: Learn from Lincoln. Live like Lincoln.
There is an emphasis on “the character qualities that made Lincoln great,” said Keller, listing leadership, perseverance, vision, honesty and empathy.
Separate handouts available at the end of the tour focus on each trait, giving examples from Lincoln's life and suggested readings to learn more. There also is a space left for individuals to accept the challenge to “live like Lincoln” and answer the question: “How will you live YOUR legacy?”
"When people come here, we want them to learn that Lincoln still matters," Keller said. "We want people to take this home — literally."