Friday, April 01, 2005

Rail-Splitter Blues

Welcome to the brand-spanking-new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, which got a big story on Morning Edition today and made me think NPR must be playing an April Fool's joke. Go check out that website, and then we'll discuss...

...Ok, we're back. For my money, never trust any museum put together by a company called Imagination Arts, although I guess we do have too many non-imaginative arts (that's what art critics are for). There's also something chilling about the headline "History in the Making," given as far as I know Lincoln's been dead eight score and ten years now, so his history seems pretty much made.

Unless, of course, he haunts his museum as a ghost, and luckily it turns out he does and he didn't decide to hang out in perpetuity at Ford's Theater or someplace he actually once visited when alive, which I thought, from all my viewing of haunted history programs on the History Channel, seemed an ironcald rule. The brilliant folks (some actually ex-Imagineers!) at the museum figured people love both The Hall of Presidents and The Haunted Mansion at Disney, so why not combine the two? That's infotainment!

Alas, the underlying theory here is what haunts me. We assume that if we don't gussy up history and learning, turn it into Nintendo, then no one will care. I don't necessarily mean to pick on this one museum (OK, I do), but it's certainly one of the most startingly clear cases that the assumption of our culture is we don't want to think. But, shiny bauble! Give me! Me like!

But our hankering after the surface is just the surface, too. Imagineers exist so we don't have to imagine--how handy that all the creative thinking has been done for us. It's all right there for us to see, so deeper senses, the ones requiring empathy and sympathy (no, not telepathy), atrophy. Our lack of ability to get inside things, to push words, whether spoken or written, from suggestion to sustenance, means we've coarsened our cultural products so even the coarsest of them, horror films, have descended from Val Lewton's creepy and insinuating 1940s films to the gross-out, how creatively can we kill somebody slasher flicks of today.

But there's more in the less we're expected to be able to dream up without it being visualized, auralized, Dolby-ized and Smell-a-Vision-ized for us. I think it makes us less human. We are on the verge of losing our ability to think our way beyond our own walls of self into others. Which is mighty convenient when we opt to kill many of them for their own good, or keep them poor even if they're children, or deny them the basic right of all lovers.

Give me a hodge-podge museum any day, like the jazz museum in the Old U.S. Mint in New Orleans (check out that website, as it's as homespun as the non-virtual place). There you can see the first cornet Louis Armstrong learned to play when he was a resident of the Municipal Waif’s Home for Boys, 1913-14. No hologram picks it up. But your mind has to, taking it back in time when much of jazz Satchmo still had to think up, and this battered horn was the start. And then there's that genius in the Waif's Home, one more of the African-American poor who eked out lives in New Orleans much like they do today. It's just an object, but we can bring so much to it that it practically blows its own symphony.

Now that's something.


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