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Measure would change state historian position, sever ties between ALPLM and foundation

State Journal Register

Monday, November 22, 2021  |  Article  |  Dean Olsen

Abraham Lincoln, Presidential Library and Museum (50)

The job of state historian would change from a full-time, paid position focused on the legendary 16th president to an unpaid, two-year rotating appointment attracting experts on other aspects of Illinois’ history.

That’s the goal of a bill headed to the Illinois House when the General Assembly reconvenes in January after the bill passed the Senate in October with no dissenting votes.

“Illinois has had 10 state historians over the decades,” Christina Shutt, executive director of Springfield’s Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, told a Senate committee in October. “All were men. All were focused mostly on Abraham Lincoln. Illinois’ history is far more complex than that.”

ALPLM, a wing of state government where several past historians had been based, supports Senate Bill 302

The bill also would change state law to sever all ties between ALPLM and what had been ALPLM’s independent fundraising arm since the inception of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation in 2001.

Shutt became ALPLM executive director in June after serving as director of the African American history and culture museum in Arkansas. She said the proposed change in the state historian position would “embrace a holistic view of Illinois’ story.”

Under the bill, the state historian would serve a two-year term, renewable for an additional two years, after being appointed by the governor based on the recommendation of the ALPLM board. The board would have to consult with the Illinois State Historical Society on recommendations.

The bill requires candidates for the appointment to have “expertise in the history of at least one under-represented minority in this state, including but not limited to: African-American history; Native American history; Latinx history; Asian-American history and LGBTQIA history.”Shutt said each scholar chosen “would be expected to work with our institution on relevant research, sharing their expertise with the people of Illinois.”The bill’s sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford, D-Maywood, said change in the state historian job would help to “embrace Illinois’ diverse history.”

ALPLM spokesman Chris Wills said the position would be similar to Illinois poet laureate, though many past poet laureates, including the late Carl Sandburg, held the title (1962-67) for more than two years.

The current state historian position, which had been based at ALPLM, has been vacant since the departure of Samuel Wheeler, who was fired in July 2020 for unspecified “performance” issues.

Illinois has had state historians at various points since 1932, when Paul Angle received the title, Wills said.

No one held the title between Thomas Schwartz and Samuel Wheeler. 

Schwartz, who became state historian in 1993, left in mid-2011 to become director of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library & Museum in West Branch, Iowa. Wheeler was hired for the post in 2016.

The idea to rotate the historian title among different historians preceded Shutt’s arrival in Springfield, Wills said, “but she was the one to pick up on the idea of using it to amplify diverse voices on a variety of Illinois history topics.”

With the support of Gov. JB Pritzker, Schutt “has led efforts to get the change approved in the General Assembly,” Wills said.

ALPLM, which receives more than $11 million per year in state funding, was part of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency until 2017, when a change in state law established ALPLM as a state agency under the executive branch.

The legislation that made the change required ALPLM and the not-for-profit Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation to “mutually cooperate to maximize resources.”

Shutt told the Senate committee the legislative mandate to cooperate was “well-meaning. In practice, however, it is simply not workable.”

She said state law doesn’t require the foundation to share its fundraising proceeds with ALPLM or “open its books for a detailed review.”

She added: “The result is that a public agency answerable to taxpayers is shackled to a private organization that has operated with little transparency or accountability. There is no leverage to make the foundation answer questions or share the money it has raised in the name of a public, taxpayer-funded institution.”

Nick Kalm, vice chairman of the foundation’s board, told The State Journal-Register that Shutt’s comments “defy the facts.”

As a charitable organization, the foundation submits to regular financial reviews by a third party, and the resulting audits are public, Kalm said. 

The foundation has given ALPLM all of the financial records required by law “and more,” he said.

Kalm said the foundation “would really rather not have any conflict” with ALPLM “or anyone else,” and the foundation took no stance on SB 302.

Tensions between ALPLM and the foundation increased in 2012 when doubts were raised about the authenticity of a stovepipe hat purportedly owned by Lincoln and valued at $6.5 million. 

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The hat was part of the foundation’s $25 million purchase of Lincoln artifacts from collector Louise Taper in 2007. The stovepipe hat remains in the 1,400-piece collection at ALPLM but isn’t on display.

Before his termination, Wheeler issued a 54-page report on the progress of research to clarify the earliest history, or “provenance,” of the hat.

Wheeler recommended more work be done on the hat’s history, but a “memo of understanding” on cooperation between ALPLM and the foundation expired in March 31 with no resolution in sight.

There’s no ongoing work on the provenance of the hat, Wills said.  

The Taper collection is on loan to the museum through Oct. 31, 2022, and ownership of the collection would transfer from the foundation to the state if the debt incurred by the foundation to acquire the collection is paid off by then.

Over the past 14 years, the foundation has raised more than $24 million toward payment of the bank loan for the collection, along with the cost of interest and insurance coverage, according to Nick Kalm, vice chairman of the foundation’s board.

More than $8 million in principal on the loan remains, he said. He wouldn’t predict whether the foundation’s debt will be repaid by Oct. 31.

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It’s uncertain what will happen to the collection after that, but Kalm said the foundation wants to make sure the public can continue to view the collection, whether at the museum or elsewhere.

The foundation’s agreement with the bank that made the loan calls for the loan to paid off by Oct. 31, Kalm said. He said the foundation is in “continuing discussions” with the bank on loan terms, and there is “no talk” of any need to auction off the collection.

Kalm said the foundation is “looking into new partnerships” and continues to award its annual Lincoln Leadership Prize

“We’re very optimistic about our future,” he said. “We’re moving on.”

Since March 31, ALPLM has set up a trust for tax-deductible donations it receives, Wills said. The trust will be regularly reviewed by the Illinois Auditor General’s office.

ALPLM also is working to create a new position of development director to lead its fundraising efforts, Wills said.