The museum contains life-size dioramas of Lincoln's boyhood home, areas of the White House, the presidential box at Ford's Theatre, and the settings of key events in Lincoln's life, as well as pictures, artifacts and other memorabilia. Original artifacts are changed from time to time, but the collection usually includes items like the original hand written Gettysburg Address, a signed Emancipation Proclamation, his glasses and shaving mirror, Mary Todd Lincoln's music box, items from her White House china, her wedding dress, and more. The permanent exhibits are divided into two different stages of the president's life, called "Journey One: The Pre-Presidential Years", and "Journey Two: The Presidential Years", and a third, the "Treasures Gallery". Temporary exhibits rotate periodically. Past exhibits have dealt with the Civil War and Stephen A. Douglas, . As of February 2014, a collection of Annie Leibovitz's photography, including photos of Lincoln's items, is on display.
One of the museum's permanent exhibits, Campaign of 1860, includes modern-style television updates on the campaign's progress from the late Meet the Press anchor Tim Russert. Another of the permanent exhibits, "The Civil War in Four Minutes," displays a large animated map which displays the changing battle lines of the Civil War in four minutes. In addition to its exhibits, the Lincoln Museum runs two special effects theater shows, Lincoln's Eyes and Ghosts of the Library.
The "Under His Hat: Discovering Lincoln's Story From Primary Sources", is the home of the Lincoln Collection Digitization Project, a thematic online resource that features a 360-degree online view of his hat (the actual hat is, as of May 2013, also on display at the museum).
Burbank, California-based BRC Imagination Arts, led by Bob Rogers, was responsible for all of the permanent exhibits and presentations, music, theaters, lifelike figures and full-immersion historical settings.
The Lincoln Presidential Library is a research library which houses books, papers and artifacts related to Lincoln's life and the American Civil War. In addition to the works associated with Lincoln and his era, the library houses the collection of the Illinois State Historical Library (founded by the state in 1889) and serves as a premier repository of books, pamphlets, manuscripts, and other materials of historical interest pertaining to the history of the state of Illinois. While the library is open to the public, its rare collection is non-circulating. A reading room, named the Steve Neal Reading Room in honor of Illinois historical journalist Steve Neal, is open to the public.
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is administered by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. Richard Norton Smith served as the museum's Founding Executive Director. Dr. Thomas Schwartz served as the museum's Interim Executive Director when Smith departed in March 2006, and until Rick Beard was appointed in October 2006. However, Beard was fired in October 2008 after he was charged with shoplifting at Springfield stores; he later pleaded guilty.
Jan Grimes, Director of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, served as interim Executive Director until Eileen R. Mackevich, MBE, was appointed by Illinois Governor Pat Quinn on Friday, December 3, 2010. Mackevich formerly served as the Executive Director of the national Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. Mackevich was also active as a broadcast journalist and talk show host on Chicago public radio, and was the co-founder of the Chicago Humanities Festival. Mackevich's objectives were to raise money, make the museum more attractive, and attract more international interest. She resigned in 2015 and Governor Bruce Rauner named Nadine O'Leary to serve as Acting Director.
In July 2016, Governor Bruce Rauner appointed Alan Lowe as Executive Director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library. Alan C. Lowe served as Director of the George W. Bush Presidential Museum and Library in Dallas, Texas before accepting his position at the ALPLM.
As First Lady of Illinois, Lura Lynn Ryan became a major fundraiser and the Library's first chairwoman. She launched the fundraising for the library by raising $250,000. Ryan also organized a program in which Illinois schoolchildren collected pennies for the construction of the presidential library, which raised $47,000 dollars. Ryan was appointed to the 14-member Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission by the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives to commemorate the 200th birthday of former U.S. President Abraham Lincoln in 2009. She served on the commission from 2001 to 2010.
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is located in Springfield, Illinois, in the historic downtown section, near many other Lincoln cultural sites. The presidential library opened on October 14, 2004, and the museum opened on April 19, 2005. Until 1970, Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. was designated as the "Lincoln Museum".
The buildings which now house the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum are in three separate structures. Each structure encompasses one city block.
Two of the buildings, the museum and the library, are separated by a street and connected above the street level by an enclosed walkway. The entrance of each building features a rotunda, reflective of the dome on the Old State Capitol State Historic Site in Springfield, where Lincoln served four terms as a legislator. Both structures were designed by the architectural firm HOK.
The third building, the former Springfield Union Station, has been adapted to serve as the museum's visitor center.
The museum has sparked debate within the field of museum design and among historians for its use of theatrics and inaccurate reproductions to tell the Lincoln story. Public response has been positive, delivering larger than expected attendance, enthusiastic visitors and a boost to the regional economy, including increased attendance at surrounding historical attractions.
However, museum traditionalists have disapproved of this departure from the display and interpretation of real artifacts. Southern Illinois University Carbondale historian John Y. Simon have said the museum's approach, which borrows presentation technologies from entertainment, trivializes the subject matter. Suggesting that it is more like a theme park than a museum, Simon called the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum a "Six Flags Over Lincoln" and architecture critic Blair Kamin referred to it as "Lincoln Land."
Other academics applaud the Lincoln Museum's approach. John R. Decker wrote in the Journal of American History:
Like any other modern collection (the Lincoln Presidential museum) has an audience base that extends far beyond specialists and academics. Rather than merely pandering to the public or dumbing down history, the ALPLM intelligently and compellingly uses visual culture to meet its mission as a public pedagogical institution. The museum addresses complex historical material and opens the historical discourse to a wider audience than would be possible through more conventional means.
The scholarship behind the content and design for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum was a collaboration between international exhibit designers, BRC Imagination Arts, the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency (IHPA), and a content team assembled by state historian Dr. Thomas H. Schwartz. This content team included the world's leading Lincoln scholars, Pulitzer Prize winning historians, and Illinois school teachers representing the fourth, seventh and eleventh grades. A key goal of this collective was that exhibits promote a greater level of personal interest in Abraham Lincoln. The museum's gift shop has seen record sales of history books. Overall sales in the gift shop hit $1 million within three months of the museum's opening to the public.
Since its opening in April 2005, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum has ranked as America's most visited state-controlled presidential museum. In about six months the museum generated about $1 million. In less than twenty-one months, the museum received its one millionth visitor. In August 2012, the museum received its three millionth visitor, with the steady attendance continuing. Museum officials credited the Steven Spielberg movie Lincoln for an increase in visitors in 2013, as the museum displayed artifacts from the film.
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum has been recognized with two awards: a Thea Award for Outstanding Achievement from the Themed Entertainment Association, and an award from The Lincoln Group of New York, which every year honors "the individual or organization that has done the most to encourage the study and appreciation of Abraham Lincoln".