The Lincoln Museum as Shrine and Reliquary
Monday, April 30, 2018, Bloomington to Springfield, Il.
The route here is simple enough. The old road runs parallel to the Interstate, going through towns rather than around them. Actually, at some point in its history, Route 66 was given a semi-circular bypass around some of the towns, some of which have since expanded around the bypass, forcing the Interstate to do a yet wider bypass around the town. On the map you can see both the old and new bypass routes around towns like Atlanta and Lincoln, one wrapped around the other. This also means that there is a choice of Route 66 alignments through these towns, one going through downtown and one on the old bypass route. We tend to take the oldest alignment through downtown.
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The landscape between the towns is mostly farmland, pleasant but unremarkable. Given the early hour and the fact that the Interstate attracts all the through traffic, the road is quiet.
We left the Quality Inn in Bloomington at 7:30 and stopped in Atlanta at 8:06 to take a photo of a large statue of Paul Bunyan holding a hotdog. Neither Paul Bunyan nor the hotdog have any particular historical significance here that I am aware of. This is simply a piece of Route 66 memorabilia, most of which is, frankly, commercial and tatty. Quite why this is part of the charm of Route 66 is a little hard to pin down, but it is. Perhaps it is the sheer eccentricity and exuberance of these tatty commercial artifacts that attracts. There is something naïve and uncalculated about them that you don't see much of in the data-driven commerce of today. Ordinary eccentricity on display, in other words. (If the position of Paul Bunyan's left hand looks odd, by the way, it is because he was originally holding an axe.)
At 8:40 we arrived in the town of Lincoln, where everything was still closed. We walked around the court house/municipal building, which is impressive for a town of this size, and I took a picture of a statue of Lincoln giving a speech that stands in the grounds. Lincoln mania begins. The rest of the day is not going to be about eccentric commercial tat. It is going to be about the hagiography of the 16th president of the United States.
On to Springfield where we park at the Lincoln Home Historic site, which is actually a park preserving several city streets from Lincoln’s day. It is a lovely streetscape, widely-spaced houses set well back from the road with hundreds of trees in blossom. There is an openness to it that you never see in a modern town, even in the wealthy enclaves, where houses tend to be hidden by walls and overgrowths of dense shrubbery. By contrast, these streets feel more like a park with houses in it.
I wonder how much this really represents the streetscape of Lincoln's time and how much it has been tidied up by the National Parks Service. Certainly there would have been more traffic and more animals when it was a living community. Flocks of tourist probably add up to a greater concentration of souls than these streets would have seen in Lincoln's day, but they don't give the same impression of a genuinely lived-in space.
This is the problem with all museums, of course: they show artifacts preserved, not in use, and that profoundly changes how you see them. Industrial museums, like Ontario's Upper Canada Village, with its working mills and bakery, can avoid some of this distortion, but it is hard to see how you do anything similar when you are preserving a middle class suburb.
And that is exactly what the Lincoln Home is, a middle class house in a middle class suburb. The house is on about the same scale as a middle class house today. The thing that strikes me principally about it is how uncomfortable the furniture looks and how gaudy the wallpaper is. Tastes in interior decoration have definitely changed since Lincoln's day. But if this all seems very ordinary, perhaps that is the point. This is a republic, after all, and ordinary middle class lawyers are supposed to be able to rise to become president.
We leave the Lincoln Home site and, leaving the car at the Lincoln Home parking lot (recommended), we walk towards the Lincoln Museum. Along the way we pass the Old Illinois State Capitol, which is a much more interesting building than the Lincoln Home (alas, I seem to have forgotten to take any pictures, but there are no shortage of them online). This building has some real dignity and even grandeur, on a small scale. It contains one large room for each of the various departments of state. All the business of the state was, of course, done on paper by candle light with dip pens, but it is striking to see these things on the desks in each of the departments. Everything is set up as if the clerks had just gone home for their supper. I find it quite fascinating, and I wonder if indeed each of the departments of the state was really run from one room in the capitol building, or if these rooms were merely the head offices of the departments, so to speak, and the rest of the civil service was housed in something less grand off site.
The exterior of the Old State Capitol is sandstone and it is very heavily weathered. I have seen many 1000 year old sandstone buildings in England with incredibly complex patterns worn into the sandstone by the wind. In some places, the National Trust has had to replace the blocks with new ones because they were so worn. But those are 1000 year old buildings. The old state capitol was built between 1837 and 1840, and yet the weathering looks almost as bad as some of that in those 1000 year old buildings. How did so much weathering occur in so short a time? Is it a matter of stronger winds, perhaps, or possibly inferior sandstone?
The Old State Capitol is my favorite site of the day, by a long chalk. But we came here for all things Lincoln, so we press on to the Lincoln Museum.
The Lincoln Museum is not really a museum. It is a shrine. Don't look for sophisticated analysis or curation here. Look for adulation. There is a plaque that claims that more books were written about Lincoln than any other person except “possibly” Jesus. Can that be remotely true? Looking it up afterwards I found two lists of the most written-about people in history, one of which puts Lincoln fifth and the other sixth. The people ahead of him, however, are totally different between the two lists (Shakespeare, Dante, Goethe, and Cervantes vs. George Washington, Napoleon, Jesus Christ, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Peter the Great). In this sort of thing, of course, it all depends on how you count.
While Lincoln predominates, the museum actually celebrates four Illinois presidents, Lincoln, Grant, Reagan and Obama, though neither Lincoln or Obama were actually born in Illinois. They have recordings of Reagan’s and Obama’s speeches and I am struck by how good Obama's delivery is, and how banal his actual words are when you strip them from the oratory. Lincoln's words, by contrast, resound even when merely read silently. I can’t remember a single thing Obama said – perhaps a virtue in a modern politician. Indeed, this seems to be the whole art of modern political oratory: to say as little as possible with as much passion as possible. We have data driven politics today, just as we have data driven commerce, and that may preclude a Lincoln from ever occupying the White House again.
The Lincoln exhibits consist largely of dioramas of various stages of Lincoln's career and a selection of artefacts. I'm not much of a museum goer. In some sense, the internet has made the traditional function of the museum obsolete. Anything you can see in a museum you can see in multiple pictures online. The attraction of seeing them in person is twofold, I think. First, it can give you a sense of their scale, which can be hard to grasp from pictures. But this does not apply to the artefacts of political life, which are largely documents and the tools for preparing those documents: desks, pens, etc. (Museums celebrating writers, such as the Edinburgh Writers Museum that we visited in 2017 are similarly devoid of excitement.)
The second attraction is the allure of the relic, the thing that the saint touched or wore, as if some part of their holiness attached to the article itself, and you could somehow touch or participate in that holiness merely by being in the presence of the relic.
This veneration of relics has been a part of Catholic Christianity from the beginning, and so, as a Catholic myself, I have to respect it, though I confess I do not feel it much. But a similar veneration of the relics of secular figures is something that touches me not at all.
The Lincoln Museum, in short, is a place to venerate Lincoln, and your experience of it will probably be proportional to the reverence you feel for the man, and the attraction you feel for relics of those you admire.
That said, I am struck by the fact that I was so impressed by the rooms at the Old State Capitol, which were, after all, just full of the tools for creating documents. They are in no sense relics. They are the tools of ordinary civil servants who nobody reveres or remembers, used for preparing documents of no grace, beauty, or lasting significance. So why should that make them more interesting?
Perhaps it is the setting, where one sees them all in context and can easily imagine the clerks returning from lunch at any moment to sit down at those desks.
Perhaps it is precisely that they resisted the urge to fill the rooms with mannequins in period costume or, worse, students or retirees in period costume pretending to be clerks, either one of which would have shattered the illusion and made the whole experience tedious. I think re-enactors work wonderfully in things like a recreated blacksmith shop where they can demonstrate actual blacksmithing techniques that you could never learn from looking at a static display of tools. But reenacting writing documents with a pen would have added nothing to our understanding of the Old State Capitol or the government of 18th century Illinois.
Perhaps, though, it is the sheer democracy of the thing. There is no shrine here, no elevation of the subject. This is how ordinary people worked and got their business done. And in that respect, it is very much in the spirit of Route 66, which is equally not about great men but about ordinary travelers.
Perhaps it is simply the wholeness of the experience. In visiting the Old State Capitol one feels almost as if you could have been wandering about the building on a bank holiday in 1846, just looking into the rooms where all the work got done. It may be a relatively ordinary experience (at least to those of us who have spent our lives laboring in offices) but it is immersive, another thing it shares with Route 66. Also, it is a really nice building: high ceilings, symmetrical, airy, elegant. It is just a pleasant place to be. If you are not into the veneration of great men, in short, you may find the Old State Capitol a more captivating place to visit than the Lincoln Museum.
While the Lincoln Museum itself is a modern building, which is to say, ugly, there is an old train station across the street from it which is quite handsome. The station houses what must certainly count as the oddest display we see all day. It is called Lincoln at the Movies but in terms of volume of artifacts, it is mostly an homage to Sally Field in her role as Mary Todd Lincoln in the 2012 movie, Lincoln. Lincoln himself is represented mostly by a small clip of Daniel Day Lewis chewing scenery in the titular role. Not that there is any need for yet more Lincoln displays in Springfield. But the balance in this museum (doubtless dictated by the artifacts they had available to display) is quite eccentric.
We stay at the Route 66 Motel and Conference Centre on the way out of town. It is a strange beast. It is an outdoor motor court that has had a roof and curtain walls built over it. There are no outside windows. The rooms have a full glass front that looks out onto a corridor, with a curtain for privacy. Not ideal for claustrophobes like us. The diner at the hotel was not open yet so we went across the street to Sgt. Pepper’s Café – at some inconvenience and peril. America desperately needs to discover the concept of a sidewalk. Call it a form of climate action, which it is, because it would encourage walking.
On display in the corridors of the hotel is a white car hood emblazoned with an Illinois Route 66 logo and countless signatures. One of the rules of Route 66 is that if you put a Route 66 logo on any vaguely transportation related piece of junk, it instantly becomes memorabilia. It is a very different kind of homage from that paid to Lincoln, but, I can't help thinking, it is in many ways a much more democratic kind of homage: not the chamber of commerce's homage to their number one tourist attraction, but the drifter's homage to the road that carries them.
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