Feb. 17--In an exhibit called "Campaign 1860," former "Meet the Press" newsman Tim Russert gives a televised report on the presidential election of Abraham Lincoln.
Once lauded as innovative and imaginative, the exhibit -- using the old-style tube TVs instead of flat screens -- was a centerpiece of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum when the complex opened in Springfield in 2005. But in the competitive, high-tech world of presidential libraries, a decade ago is like ancient history.
"Many people who are 40 and above loved and adored him," Eileen Mackevich, the library and museum's executive director, said of Russert, who died in 2008. "But some kids who walk through this exhibit today don't know who he is, and they think the technology is from 1860."
At a time when private donors are giving millions of dollars to build sprawling, state-of-the art presidential libraries and older ones are being renovated to give visitors an interactive experience of the presidency, the Lincoln Museum has struggled to keep up.
While the 9-year-old museum continues to draw more than 300,000 visitors a year, its age is beginning to show. The $170 million complex, which at one time was hailed for its hologram exhibits, life-size silicone figures and time-lapsing Civil War casualty map, is overdue for a face-lift. But the state can't afford to pay for it.
Unlike the 13 other presidential libraries that fall under the jurisdiction of the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, the Lincoln library and museum are funded by the state of Illinois.
With several institutions pushing to get President Barack Obama's presidential library and museum built in Chicago after he leaves office, the Lincoln museum could end up competing for tourists against an ultramodern museum supported by a multimillion-dollar endowment.
Meanwhile, preserving Lincoln's legacy is at the mercy of the Illinois General Assembly.
In its first year of operation, the Lincoln complex received $17 million from the state. With the state barely able to pay its bills, funding had dwindled to around $9 million in recent years. Some funding was restored this year, bringing the budget to $13 million. Officials at the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, which oversees the library and museum, said funding has simply kept pace with the rising cost of employee pensions and health care, leaving little or no money for improvements.
In the long run, that could have an impact on attendance and the economic viability of the library and museum, according to Sunny Fischer, chair of the preservation agency's board of trustees. Because of low funding, Fischer said, the museum has had to operate on a tight budget, cutting staff and leaving some positions, such as the director of education, unfilled.
"We've taken a hit in the last few years, and it's been a challenge. We have things that have not been upgraded in a long time," Fischer said. "There are things every museum has to do to be fresh so people will keep coming back. You have to keep up with new research, and the technology has changed from 10 years ago."
Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president to build a library, in 1940, and in 1955 Congress established a system of privately erected and federally maintained libraries. The Lincoln library, funded primarily by the state with some assistance from the federal government and the city of Springfield, grew out of the old Illinois State Historical Library, which held state documents dating back 125 years.
While the National Archives has seen federal funding for its libraries drop from $85 million in 2005 to $68 million in 2013, its 13 libraries are supported by hefty endowments administered by presidential library foundations.
A law passed by Congress in 2008 requires each president's foundation, which raises private money to build the library, to place 60 percent of the cost of the library in an endowment to offset the government's operating and maintenance costs once it opens. The endowments have been used to expand physical exhibits and create Internet sites that bring the libraries to life online.
The George W. Bush Foundation, for example, raised more than $300 million for his library and museum, which opened last year on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Obama's foundation might need to raise as much as $500 million, library experts said.
The Lincoln foundation was formed after the complex opened. The facility has no endowment, and very little of its budget is derived from donations. In an effort to keep the museum affordable, the adult admission price has only risen from $7.50 when it first opened to $12 in 2010.
Even with dwindling resources, the Lincoln library and museum had a six-year reign as the most visited presidential library in the country. But in 2011, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, Calif., moved to No. 1 and stayed there. Lincoln now ranks No. 3, slightly behind the William J. Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, Ark.
The declining attendance does not bode well for the city of Springfield, where the Lincoln museum complex has contributed up to $24 million a year to the local economy, according to library officials.
Keeping pace with big-spending presidential libraries isn't easy. The Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, which opened in 1971 at the University of Texas at Austin, underwent an $11 million renovation in 2012. It now includes a Vietnam "situation room" with an interactive display of formerly secret documents and recordings. Visitors get to decide how they would have handled the situation before learning what Johnson actually did.
The Reagan library, which opened in 1991, was renovated in 2011 and includes an exhibit featuring the Boeing 707 aircraft Regan used as Air Force One during his administration.
The Clinton library has a gallery of multimedia exhibits where visitors can explore White House correspondence. The George W. Bush library has a 67-foot-tall Freedom Hall with a 360-degree, high-definition video wall depicting a montage of the U.S. presidents.
Mackevich has ideas about how to update the Lincoln museum. While some upgrades would require new technology and could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, some work could be done for $75,000 to $150,000, she said.
She sees the popular slave auction exhibit -- silicone figures of a black family being separated -- becoming more interactive. She envisions an app that allows visitors to hear the voices of the auctioneer, the crying children and their distraught parents. She also wants to add an authentic slave bill of sale.
"Every one of those figures can be translated into a real live piece of history," said Mackevich, who was hired by Gov. Pat Quinn to run the facility in 2010. "There is a wealth of oral history from former slaves."
One of the most outdated exhibits, she said, is "Ask Mr. Lincoln." She would get rid of the video in which a former historian interprets Lincoln's speeches. She would replace it with a short movie using actors dressed as Lincoln filmed at various sites in Springfield from the Old State Capitol to the Lincoln homesite. Visitors also could use high-tech phones to ask President Lincoln questions about more contemporary issues.
As for the Russert exhibit, Mackevich said she has gotten an earful of ideas from the students who come through the museum. One of the most interesting, she said, was to allow visitors to conduct a poll using social media.
Mackevich said she already has reached out to other museums, education boards and organizations about collaborating on some exhibits. At the same time, the museum has broadened the temporary exhibits to include sets from Steven Spielberg's hit movie "Lincoln." An exhibit by famed photographer Annie Leibovitz recently opened at the museum.
"We want to be a risk-taker, but you have to bring the right people together to make sure it is a concept that will interest a broad range of people," Mackevich said, referring to future collaborations. "This is a young institution, and we have a lot of work to do to maintain it."
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