BLOOMINGTON — Justice has been well-served: The home for the McLean County Museum of History's enlightening new "Abraham Lincoln in McLean County" exhibit is a former courtroom.

Though consigned to storage use in recent years, the venerable first-floor space has been returned to its judicial origins per the exhibit's themes and subject matter.

Cases won't be tried, but a verdict has definitely been handed down naming Bloomington as a primary stage for what co-curator Bill Kemp calls Lincoln's "role as the leader and moral voice of the movement to oppose the expansion of slavery," circa the mid-1850s.

The multimedia exhibit, which debuted last month, is the second in a series of five permanent displays being rolled out over a three-year stretch at the museum ("Challenges, Choices and Change: Making a Home" debuted earlier this year; yet to come are exhibits on farming, work and politics).

"Abraham Lincoln in McLean County" pays necessary heed to Lincoln's legal ties to the area during his two decades and 90 cases as an attorney in McLean County and on the well-trod Illinois Eighth Judicial Circuit. 

Check out the interactive touch screen that allows a 21st-century dweller to tag along with Abe via the route he traveled in and out of McLean County, including the various places he stopped along the way through two time frames, 1839-47, and 1847-53.

Three key trials — a landmark tax case involving the Illinois Central Railroad, an early use of the insanity defense in a murder case, a trailblazing divorce case — are profiled, along with their historic ramifications.

Key players along Lincoln's way in his "home away from home" are his like-minded legal friends in the area, including David Davis, Jesse Fell, Asahel Gridley and Leonard Swett, each well-represented in the exhibit.

The quartet's presence ranges from accounts of their various interactions with the future president to surviving artifacts from those interfaces.

That includes a desk from the law office of Kersey Fell, Jesse's brother, which was frequently used by Lincoln, including the day Jesse encouraged Abe to run for president. (Also on display is another local desk Lincoln used: from Davis' law office, where the visitor from Springfield often borrowed space to catch up on business.)

As crucial to understanding McLean County's Lincoln legacy as all of that is, says Kemp, the story is one that "has been told well many times before."

Thus, he and co-curator Susan Hartzold chose a path less traveled ... the one that saw Bloomington becoming a main stage for Lincoln's vocal opposition to slavery's expansion, the issue that first put him in the national spotlight, then the White House.

Among those decisive moments is the aftermath of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which threatened to extend slavery into northern territories ... which provoked an outcry from Lincoln and his friends.

That episode is illuminated in an audio-visual look at U.S. economic dependence on slavery and how it led to the formation of the Republican Party.

One of the exhibit's most fascinating forays along those lines is its display devoted to Lincoln's 599-word "autobiographical sketch," penned in December 1859 at the behest of Jesse Fell, who felt that newspaper editors "back east" needed the background info ("a simple, unadorned statement") to share with voters there.

A touch screen offers an array of options in navigating the document: either in Lincoln's original script (not always instantly legible) or in a text version, each with highlighted words/phrases that are linked to additional context and interpretation.

As with the "Making a Home" exhibit that premiered earlier this year, "Abraham Lincoln in McLean County" is an amalgam of traditional artifact displays and information panels married to interactive digital technologies.

That's been made possible through the ongoing $3 million "Extending Excellence" capital campaign, and overseen by Torii More, the museum's coordinator of digital humanities.

Her goal, she says, is to develop a narrative that digs deeper into the subject via various interactive digital additions, including touch screens, phone apps and, as the exhibit's climax, a nine-minute film that plays in the exhibit space's own theater.

Scripted by Kemp from eyewitness accounts largely culled from Pantagraph archives, the short film features illustrations by Chicago artist Rick Tuma and covers a range of "man-behind-the-myth" recollections, from Lincoln's storytelling acumen to his bouts with depression, his facility with the German language and his ease around kids (and vice-versa). 

The exhibit has been well-attended and received since its May 21 unveiling, says Hartzold, and offers a perfect fit with the museum's year-old Cruisin' with Lincoln on Route 66 Visitors Center.

A "second coming" for the exhibit is still looming, she adds, with July's annual Lincoln's Festival expected to offer it a prime showcase and built-in audience.

Follow Dan Craft on Twitter: @pg_dcraft


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