Interpretive opportunities and challenges: Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial

I will admit, despite traversing Indiana on numerous occasions, only having visited the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial just once.  That was many years ago, and my impression was low.  I figured it was just a step or two above a living history farm exhibit.  My grasp of interpretive subtleties was somewhat challenged at that time, what with me focused on martial endeavors, and I longed for a “cannonball park.”  Just seemed the park’s displays came across flat.

A two part article on National Park Traveler website (part 1 and part 2), now has me thinking… maybe it wasn’t just me!  In the first part, Richard Sellers traces the history and background of the park.  Early on, the site began as a memorial to Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks.  By the time it became the state’s Nancy Hanks Lincoln State Memorial, religious symbolism dominated the site.  As Sellers points out, the religious tone was not out of order, given the time:

Historian David Donald, in looking back nearly a century after Lincoln’s death, observed that “the Lincoln of folklore is more significant than the Lincoln of actuality” because the Lincoln of folklore “has become the central symbol in American democratic thought; he embodies what ordinary, inarticulate Americans have cherished as ideals.” Indeed, Abraham Lincoln’s pathway from backwoods obscurity to the White House is marked by an array of preserved and protected historic places that attest to his veneration and his stature as the mythical personification of the nation’s democratic ideal—the reigning figure in American civil religion.

So to some degree, the park was as much about the public memory of Lincoln as about Lincoln himself.

Another point to keep in mind about the Lincoln Boyhood NM is the timing of its entry into the park system – just fifty years ago or so.  It was a “centennial era” Civil War site.  And, as Sellers notes, when the Park Service took over the site, there was a shift in focus:

Arrival of the first National Park Service superintendent in 1963 marked a major turning point in the memorial’s history, as the new management quickly shifted emphasis to a more pedestrian memory of Abraham Lincoln and to attracting, entertaining, and educating the public. A striking example of the Service’s priorities came very soon, when the park created a “living-history” farmstead to depict daily activities on the Lincoln family farm. The living-history project included transporting to the park an old log cabin—a stand-in for any long-disappeared Lincoln family dwelling (and probably the cabin that Senator Kennedy visited in 1968). But next, park managers decided that a portion of the Trail of Twelve Stones intruded on their newly developed living-history farm scene, and removed a number of the stones to storage, thereby reducing the trail’s symbolic value.

Similarly, showing little concern for the huge landscaped cross, the new managers neglected maintenance of the trees and other plants, allowing the original design to become indistinct.

Only in the 1980s, were the trail and landscaped cross restored… though not well interpreted according to Sellers.

Concluding his article, Sellers offers this critique of the park’s interpretation:

For more than a half-century the National Park Service has ignored the opportunity to engage the public with the deified, mythical Abraham Lincoln through addressing such matters as how the park’s Christian symbols are, in effect, an attempt to come to terms with the loss of Lincoln, sanctify the meaning of his life, and assert his salvation, even his deification—in essence, to interpret how the symbols reflect the Great Emancipator’s enduring status in American civil religion.

The obscured religious features are much more than mere ghosts from a deeply patriotic past, as Lincoln’s veneration is truly an ongoing phenomenon, particularly strong today during the Civil War sesquicentennial. And there is no end in sight. It seems altogether fitting and proper to restore into clear focus the memorial’s Christian symbols: They connect directly to the mythical, folkloric Father Abraham, who once labored hard, educated himself, and grew into maturity on this Indiana farmland. Why obscure the park’s very symbols that collectively tell us Lincoln belongs to the ages?

For the most part, our “cannon ball” Civil War parks have a distinct, apparent purpose.  The parks were created to preserve sites of great conflict, so as to offer places of reflection as we try to understand our country’s past.  Can’t say that religious tones reach the “Lincoln-level” on those battlefields.  At the same time, when I think about the long tried argument  – “what about the monuments which were not there during the battle?” – there is some resonance.  And at the same time, I could well use that same canard with the same resonance to argue against promoting new monuments on the battlefields.  There’s a lot to be said for the context of those historical resources, particularly names on a memorial.

A good set of articles.  Food for thought.