The Technology Behind Springfield’s Lincoln Museum

I am one of those inveterate museum goers. Often on a business trip I will take some time to stop by a favorite gallery or seek out a new one. And so, when I had a chance to write an article for the New York Times about the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., I jumped at the chance.

Alas, the story was cut from the paper at the last minute, but I thought I would share with you some of my experiences. What was interesting about the place, which has been open for about three years, is how it combines Vegas glitz and geeky gadgets to bring the scholarship of Lincoln’s life and the Civil War years into a modern context.

I spent about three hours there on a day that was turning into one of those Midwestern snow squalls, and it was fun to tour the place with their IT manager and see how they built some of the attractions. They have a wide variety of tech in place, from the ordinary such as theatrical lighting to the unusual with very advanced digital holographic projectors. It is far cry from a dusty collection of artifacts in glass cases, and the museum designers have succeeded at bringing many parts of the Lincoln story quite literally to life.

There are dozens of video projectors used throughout the place, including playing key roles in two theaters that run short programs – one is about Lincoln’s life, the other talks about library research where a live actor lip-syncs to the script and is part of a very snazzy special effect. The contrast of old and new stagecraft is fascinating, particularly when the actor told me that the technique used in his show dates back to Lincoln’s time, when they used gas lamps instead of electric lights and fiber optics.

Underneath each seat in one theater are special Butt Kicker speakers that respond to the rifle fire and cannon blasts on the soundtrack, creating vibrations that make these scenes very realistic. What the designers told me is how computer-controlled video programming is being used as another theatrical lighting instrument, and is changing the way they work. All of the video is digitized and plays from terabytes of hard disk storage. All of the systems have sophisticated error-checking routines and emails the technical staff when something goes wrong.

One of the more interesting videos is a short four-minute film that shows a map of the US and the entire Civil War. You see the constantly shifting front line between North and South, the number of casualties, and the major battles taking place. It is a powerful reminder of how devastating that war was.

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