Sunday, June 28, 2009

Congratulations to the Organizers

In my final essay about the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, I want to commend the designers and organizers. Apparently the lion’s share of the kudos goes to BRC Imagination Arts, the principal designers of the exhibits at the APLM. However I want to applaud the people who made the decision to hire BRC. That decision fostered one of the best museums I have ever visited. Why do I think the museum is so good? Because it does its job – it communicates.

Many museum exhibits are dry and without context. Countless museums place objects in glass cases with carefully prepared labels that tell us what the article is. The visitors read the facts and try to put the empty bottle or dead bug into some kind of context. But when you’ve seen one fern fossil, you’ve seen them all. There is no way to appreciably relate to most of what we see.

The ALPM is different. Upon entering the museum, one is confronted by wax figures of the Lincoln family that are startling lifelike. That encounter sets the stage for a sensory experience that replaces the Lincoln myth with facts that humanize the sixteenth president, making him even more remarkable.

Like many, I thought Mr. Lincoln was an impressive former president. Now I see him as an extraordinary human being who, like all of us, was flawed but who had great inner strength tempered by compassion. The more I learned about Mr. Lincoln, the more I felt I knew him as a real person. So much so that when I reached the final display, I was deeply moved.

So, thank you to the organizers and thank you to BRC. Your efforts to communicate and inform are highly successful. Your message was received and is greatly appreciated.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Mary Todd Lincoln - I Know You Better Now

One of the supporting characters in the Lincoln drama was his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. During this bicentennial year of Lincoln’s birth, much has been speculated about Mary’s mental condition. I submit that Mary Todd Lincoln has been mislabeled and maligned, even today, by people who do not credit her for withstanding an inordinate amount of tragedy.

Let’s look at the facts:

Mary Todd Lincoln’s mother died when she was seven. She lost her second-born son before he turned four, her third son died shortly after she became First Lady, and a beloved brother died in the Civil War. As First Lady, she was not accepted by Washington society. Being a Southern woman married to a Northern president, neither side welcomed or trusted her. Both thought she was a traitor. No friends or support here.

Then her husband was shot just inches away from her. Anyone who watches CSI knows what that means. The word “spatter” should convey the idea. Then Mary was pulled forcibly from her dying husband’s side because her grief was considered an inappropriate display of emotion.

Following her husband’s death, Mary was inconsolable and suffered a terrible depression coupled with great fear. Finally, her third son died before he reached adulthood.

Mary Todd Lincoln suffered from post traumatic stress disorder. No therapy or counseling for Mary, however. Instead, her eldest son had her followed and then forced into a mental institution.

What does all this have to do with communication?

It demonstrates what effective communication can accomplish. Thanks to the excellent work of the historical institutions in Springfield, this woman suddenly became real to me. Mary Todd Lincoln is no longer a shadow behind the 16th President. She stands on her own. And I admire her.

BTW – I recently discovered I am not alone in my assessment of Mary Lincoln. Read Anna Quinlend’s column in Newsweek.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

The Great Communicator

The media placed that label on President Ronald Reagan. I beg to differ. Reagan was an actor so he was comfortable in front of cameras and reporters. He thought quickly on his feet. Reagan delivered the message well but Peggy Noonan wrote the speeches he gave. Should she be wearing the title instead?

I ask the question because I recently returned from a trip to the Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library in Springfield, Illinois. One of the many things that I learned during that visit was that Lincoln wrote his own speeches. He toiled over them, carefully selecting words and crafting phrases that would properly convey his intent.

Lincoln was a reader. He had to be. There was no television, no Wii and no film to entertain him. We all know the stories about him reading by firelight. He became a lawyer and wrote all his arguments. When he ran for political office, it was his own words that he spoke in campaign speeches.

Lincoln could not text 140 words to anyone. He couldn’t even make a telephone call. He had to write. And what a benefit to all of us that he could. Our 16th president crafted words so well that he changed us as a nation. What would have happened, both to him and to us, if he had not given his all to the “House Divided” speech, the Emancipation Proclamation, or the Gettysburg Address?

We owe a great deal to President Lincoln. He was our greatest communicator.

More next week.