Museums tell stories that help visitors understand the past, present and maybe the future. Museums often collect and display artifacts from the past and present to help better tell the story.
In Illinois, the Lincoln Museum has put on display, as an important part of the story, the top hat understood to be Lincoln's. Yes, this hat could have been any hat from Lincoln's era or a replica and it would have served its purpose. But the Museum Board, despite evidence otherwise has insisted that the hat is authentic. This insistence now has now become a problem as the Museum needs cash and one source of that cash could be THE hat - assuming it is authentic. But this is where the problem lays. It appears that the hat may not be authentic and the value it might have rendered in terms of cash, is now, well, might not be worth so much.
Could or should the board have taken a different position over the years? I believe the answer to be "absolutely"! Now there must be a new story that does not actually change the narrative about Lincoln, but will likely change the narrative about the museum. One important lesson: governance matters in terms of policy and practice.
Here's the New York Times' details.
At the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Illinois, an iconic stovepipe hat has become a symbol in a fierce public relations effort to save an expansive collection of Lincoln artifacts.
But now the question looms large: Was the stovepipe hat even Lincoln’s?
A private nonprofit that owns the $25 million collection, including the hat, is so deep in debt that it is considering selling some of the artifacts.
The group’s chief executive has warned that the hat, size 7⅛ and made of felted beaver fur, was moving “ever closer to the auction block,” along with other items, like Lincoln’s bloodstained gloves from the night of his assassination.
The foundation paid $6.5 million for the hat in 2007 as part of a larger purchase of Lincoln artifacts.Over the last five years, the nonprofit, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation, has commissioned studies by the F.B.I. and independent historians to determine whether the hat genuinely belonged to Lincoln.
The reports concluded that the evidence of Lincoln’s ownership was uncertain but the results were never communicated to the public. A radio station in Chicago, WBEZ, first reported on the undisclosed findings.
Current and past leaders at the museum in Springfield, Ill., which displays part of the 1,400-piece collection, have said doubts about the provenance of the hat were never impressed upon them. However, the hat’s origin has been clouded since at least 2012, when The Chicago Sun-Times called it into question.
The first report, written by two outside museum authorities in 2013, found the documentation associated with the hat was “insufficient to claim” that it had belonged to Lincoln.
Lincoln supposedly gave the hat to a farmer from southern Illinois, William Waller, according to the report, which was provided to The New York Times by the foundation.
The report noted that the family’s claims of authenticity were not enough. The museum, the authors suggested, “might want to soften its claim about the hat.”
The museum didn’t.
Alan Lowe, the executive director of the museum, said that’s because he first saw the report last month, when one of the authors emailed it to him. Mr. Lowe, who became the director in July 2016, said he was shocked no one had warned him about the hat’s questionable origin.
“I was assured everyone thought it was real,” Mr. Lowe said. “I became that guy, saying, ‘I think that hat is real. I think it’s authentic.’”
In 2015, the foundation took further steps to gain evidence that Lincoln owned the hat, said Nick Kalm, a vice chairman of the foundation’s board of directors. It arranged for the F.B.I. to take DNA samples from the hat, one of three of Lincoln’s believed to have survived, to see if it matched.
According to the 2017 F.B.I. report, the analysis was inconclusive. The only DNA found appeared to be from someone who had handled the hat in modern times.The F.B.I. report did offer some evidence in favor of the hat’s connection to Lincoln: It is Lincoln’s size and has a stretched band, which aligns with the 16th president’s habit of storing papers there.
Mr. Lowe said he had no knowledge of this analysis until the chief executive of the foundation, Carla Knorowski, told him about it in January, when the nonprofit was seeking state funding to alleviate its debt.
The debt stems from the foundation’s purchase in 2007 of the 1,400-piece collection that included the hat. It borrowed $23 million to pay for the collection; more than a decade later, it owes more than $9 million.
The foundation’s staff began an online fund-raiser in May, which has garnered only a small fraction of the funds needed before the loan must be paid in full by October 2019.
Mr. Kalm disputed that the foundation had been secretive about the reports and said Mr. Lowe and previous leaders were kept informed.
Eileen Mackevich, the museum director before Mr. Lowe, said she was not privy to either report but had heard of vague plans to perform the DNA analysis. She said she was unaware that F.B.I. agents had traveled to Springfield twice in 2015 to take samples.
A spokeswoman for the F.B.I. said it sometimes takes on cases like this because they can help improve the bureau’s ability to analyze degraded DNA samples, like those its analysts would encounter at a crime scene.
The differing accounts of who knew what and when reveal a vast gulf between the state-operated museum and library and the private nonprofit that owns the collections.
Mr. Kalm said he viewed the palace intrigue over the hat as a distraction from the foundation’s larger financial problem.
While the foundation made the stovepipe the centerpiece of its fund-raising appeal, Mr. Kalm acknowledged that the nonprofit was not fully transparent with the public about the contents of the reports.
“Did we keep it from the public? Sure,” he said. “But this isn’t a public issue.”
The private foundation, Mr. Kalm said, had no “duty to disclose.” He said if the reports had offered conclusive evidence one way or another, the foundation would have communicated that to the public.
Mr. Lowe, the museum’s director, said the hat will not be on display until the staff looks deeper into documentation of its provenance.
Because Lincoln is such a revered historical figure, the public deserves full transparency about his possessions, said Frank J. Williams, a prominent collector of Lincoln artifacts and a former chief justice of Rhode Island’s Supreme Court.
Justice Williams said he worried that a controversy over an alleged Lincoln artifact could raise questions about the authenticity of other Civil War-era relics.
“When you get questions like this, you really worry,” he said. “You get suspicious and concerned about the other treasures.”