Thursday, March 13, 2008

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-synchs 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.

Another video-intensive exhibit is an interpretation of the 1860 election that was filmed in Tim Russert's "Meet the Press" studios in Washington, D.C. The exhibit shows various TV monitors as if the visitor is in the studio's control room, and the video clips and commercials are from the perspective of the four candidates running for office and their particular positions. This room alone uses three video servers and has 11 different TV monitors and runs under the control of a Windows NT PC. Yes, a version of Windows that isn't even sold anymore is at the heart of this wonderful room. (Another PC runs DOS, too.)

The lighting and even temperature of the various rooms are all under computer control all in the goal of providing the best visitor experience. The computers take into account the existing ambient lighting based on time of day and sun position, and one room that shows the deathbed of one of Lincoln's sons is several degrees cooler than the adjoining rooms, all to make it a bit more eerie.

Still, some artifacts are required to complement the technology. An antique stove that is part of an exhibit on what the White House kitchen of the 1860s looked like was purchased on eBay, and replicas of Lincoln's famous documents such as the Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address are in other rooms. And as a reminder of the contrast between Lincoln's legacy and his time in office, one room of the museum is devoted to a series of reproductions of political cartoons of the time, showing how unpopular Lincoln was during his presidency.

It is a great place, and well worth the visit if you ever have the chance. What I liked about the museum was how it combines the best of technology with ordinary museum practice to tell some great stories, and to teach people a little bit more about Honest Abe.

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About Me

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David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.