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14th presidential library set to open, dedicated to Lincoln

SPRINGFIELD, Ill.—Abraham Lincoln finally gets a presidential library and museum Tuesday, long after FDR, JFK and Ronald Reagan, as well as such also-rans as Rutherford B. Hayes and Herbert Hoover, got theirs.

President Bush will dedicate the $115 million Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum on Tuesday.

Lincoln's will be the 14th presidential library and museum, a largely modern-era invention that combines records for historical research with icons and memorabilia designed to bring that history alive. The others are dedicated to Hayes and every president since Hoover.

The Lincoln museum celebrates a man who looms larger in history than the others do but is farther removed from modern life. The challenge for the museum's designers was to make it more engaging than cold statues or simple images such as those on the penny or the $5 bill.

The result is a museum that moves quickly from room to room, frequently changes styles to shock visitors and elicited "wows" from a private, pre-dedication tour of Lincoln scholars.

"Everything is aimed at a 21st-century audience," museum designer Bob Rogers said. "For a generation tuned into TiVo and iPods, we had to pick up the pace, pick up the tempo. It's jazzed up without sacrificing scholarship."

Richard Norton Smith, the museum's executive director and presidential historian, said combining "scholarship and showmanship" produced the "first great library of the 21st century."

The library and museum hold 12 million historical items, including handwritten copies of the Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address and burglar tools from a foiled plot to steal Lincoln's body in 1878.

Among the gee-whiz highlights is a theater in which visitors watch holographic ghosts come to life in a library. In another, seats shake and lights flash as a triple-screen presentation explodes in Civil War cannon fire.

Much of the museum was planned to entice children, Rogers said. Visual displays are prominent, to appeal to emotions first; plaques and explanations are secondary.

A play area called "Mrs. Lincoln's Attic" lets children dress up in period clothing and play with, of course, Lincoln Logs.

On entering, visitors come face to face with a life-size Lincoln and his family in the museum's rotunda. Designers tested 30 shades of gray for Lincoln's eyes, and used human hair on all the models.

To the left, visitors can enter a replica log cabin and trace Lincoln's life to the White House. In one scene, they look into the eyes of a slave trader separating a family. In another, they see a wall of TV monitors, with NBC's Tim Russert airing an imaginary report on the 1860 election.

To the right of the entrance rotunda, visitors see a rendering of the South Portico of the White House. Standing outside are models of Civil War Gens. George McClellan and Ulysses S. Grant and abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. Hauntingly, a model of John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln's assassin, leans on a White House fence.

A hall of cartoons shows Lincoln pilloried by the press. One suggests he's really black, proclaiming: "Abraham Africanus, his secret life revealed."

A replica of a White House kitchen features the voices of black servants who overheard upstairs talk of freeing the slaves. Says one: "Ol' Mr. Lincoln gonna set our brothers and sisters free." Says another: "Pay no attention to what you hear in this house. Believe what they do, not what they say."

Death is prominent throughout the museum.

One display shows the Lincolns looking in on bedridden son Willie, 11, two weeks before he died of typhoid fever. Nearby, a display shows Mary Lincoln in mourning, the shadows of raindrops on an unseen window slowly streaking down her face like tears.

In another room, a video display shows the constantly rising death toll, North and South, in the Civil War.

Yet another shows Booth about to assassinate Lincoln. A final display shows Lincoln's casket lying in state at the Illinois Capitol, surrounded by flowers to mask the smell of the body. "Battle Hymn of the Republic" plays at a funereal tempo in the background.

Most of the other presidential libraries were designed and dedicated by their namesakes.

In this case, no Lincoln will attend. President Lincoln's last descendant, Robert Todd Lincoln Beckwith, died in 1985.

Except for Bush, the rest of the current presidential fraternity will be missing as well.

Without explanation, former Presidents Carter, Bush and Clinton declined to attend. They traveled to the openings of other recent libraries, such as Clinton's in Arkansas and the elder Bush's in Texas.

Former President Ford, who once proclaimed his humility by saying he was a "Ford, not a Lincoln," is 91 and rarely travels.

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For more on the library, go to the library's Web site, www.alplm.org

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050418 LINCOLNMUSEUM

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