As Illinois celebrates the 210th birthday of favorite son Abraham Lincoln, officials with the Springfield presidential museum created in his honor hope to keep important artifacts from being sold to the highest bidder.
But they’re running out of time.
The relics are part of the 1,400-item Taper Collection bought by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation in 2007. The private foundation, which supports the state-owned Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, took out a $23 million loan to buy the historical treasures.
The balance of the loan is due in October, and the foundation is still $9 million short.
The organization has used private donations through the years to slowly pay down the debt and has tried unsuccessfully to convince the state to chip in. Last May, it launched GoFundMe campaign that brought a lot of publicity but as of Monday had raised just over $34,000.
“The clock is ticking, and, you know, we can’t just keep kicking the can down the road and hoping that the problem we find ourselves in is going to solve itself,” he said.
The endangered artifacts include:
- A pair of bloodied gloves the nation’s 16th president had in his pocket when actor John Wilkes Booth assassinated him on April 14, 1865.
- The wax seal Lincoln used during his presidency.
- A stovepipe hat that is believed to have belonged to Lincoln. It’s become an iconic image for the museum but has some historians questioning its authenticity.
Rallying around the cause
Last May, a GoFundMe campaign started by the foundation’s director of development catapulted the foundation’s money problems into the national spotlight with its plea to “Save Lincoln Artifacts! Donate NOW!”
The online appeal featured a newspaper commentary written by Carla Knorowski, the foundation’s chief executive officer, originally published in the Chicago Tribune. She warned then that “the clock is ticking.’’
“His presidential seal, stovepipe hat, locks of his hair, gloves he carried with him the night of the assassination — stained with the very blood he spilled that this nation might have a new birth of freedom — could regrettably be moving closer to the auction block,’’ she wrote.
Knorowsky called on corporate leaders, private individuals and elected officials to help.
“All of us today, who, because of Lincoln, experience a more free and just society must rise up, contribute and ensure justice for him,’’ she wrote. “If a single Lincoln artifact goes to auction, taken from the public realm, then we, as a nation are collectively diminished and must look ourselves in the mirror and take responsibility. It is not any one individual’s or group’s responsibility to bear; it is all of ours to bear.”
Nearly 700 people rallied to the cause, especially in the early months of the GoFundMe. Donations ranged from $5 to three $1,000 pledges.
A donation for $20 made last week came with a note: “This is the right thing to do.”
No one expected the GoFundMe to solve the problem, said Kalm, who owns a public-relations firm in Chicago and volunteers his time with the foundation.
“That was just a way to try to further raise awareness,” he said.
During the past eight months, the organization has whittled its loan balance to just under $9 million and still hopes to avoid an auction, Kalm said.
“I want to stress in the strongest possible terms that that’s not something we want to do,’’ he said. “But prudence suggests that we plan for every eventuality, if we’re not able to raise enough money to refinance the debt or if the bank decides to call their loan. But I can’t stress enough that we don’t want to part with any of the collection.’’
Visitors come for the experience
The Lincoln museum, which opened in 2005, is known for its “immersive” walk-through exhibits that depict life-size dioramas of Lincoln’s life, from boyhood to the White House. It is one of the most popular of the nation’s presidential libraries, and it’s the only one built and owned by a state. It is not a part of the U.S. National Archives. The museum, which cost about $145 million to build, was paid for by a combination of state and private funds.
When the foundation bought the Taper Collection just two years after the museum opened, the acquisition was praised as a major achievement that would elevate the stature of the museum. Louise Taper of Beverly Hills, California, was a well-known collector of Lincoln memorabilia. The collection contains hundreds of letters and legal documents written by Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, plus photographs, furniture and even a set of china.
More than 4 million visitors have walked through the museum’s doors since it opened; last year’s attendance was 256,645.
One of the museum’s most popular days of the year is Feb. 12, its Lincoln birthday celebration, when everyone gets in free. Admission fees range from $6 for kids to $15 for adults.
On a recent weekday, the museum was awash with fourth-graders on field trips from Springfield-area schools.
Babbles of chattering schooldchildren waited their turns to pose with life-size cutouts of the Lincoln family in the museum’s plaza — a tradition for museumgoers.
Justina Scott, who was chaperoning her daughter’s group, said she had heard reports that some of the museum’s artifacts were in jeopardy, but hadn’t followed the story.
Seeing items that Lincoln and his family used was interesting, she said. But she reserved her highest praise for the dioramas that allow people to step into history.
“It’s like you’re walking through life,’’ she said.
Her daughter, Jadyn, 9, liked the recreation of the log cabin, where Lincoln is portrayed next to a glowing fireplace that throws off heat.
“I like the exhibits, because they are really life-like,’’ Jadyn said. “I like the way the hair is real, and the body features.”
When the museum opened, some reviewers likened it to a historical Disneyland — a criticism that director Alan Lowe takes in stride.
“I think there’s always controversy between entertainment and education,’’ he said. “I’ve never bought into that. I think you can entertain and educate, engage and inspire all at the same time if you get the right kind of intellectual research behind it, and we certainly have that here.”
The museum complex includes a separate library building that houses the historical archives and study areas for researchers. In the museum, the focus is on the dioramas, with small displays of artifacts related to the scenes being depicted.
Visitors who want to see glass cases of historical “stuff” will find them in the “Treasures Gallery,” which features a rotating exhibit of items, including many from the Taper Collection.
On this day, for example, Lincoln’s presidential seal from the Taper Collection was prominently displayed. It still has bits of red wax that are 150 years old. Another case contained a picture of his son Willie with a lock of his hair.
Lowe, who joined the museum in 2016, wasn’t involved in the purchase of the Taper Collection. But he thinks it’s important for the foundation to find a way to keep it.
“It’s vital for historical research reasons and for education reasons,’’ he said. “As an institution, we want to be able to say we are the place where you come to study Lincoln. It should be here in the Land of Lincoln, in his presidential library and museum. And we want to keep it for future generations, so it doesn’t get sold out piecemeal into private collectors’ hands again.”
The museum, which has an annual budget of about $10 million, relies on the foundation to provide financial support for educational programs and acquisitions, Lowe said.
“We need a good foundation to work with us,’’ he said. “We are separate, but we have to work together for the success of the institution.”
Dealing with the fallout
Kalm blames negative press for hurting the foundation’s fundraising efforts — news stories that have focused on the authenticity of what is considered to be the most valuable item in the Taper Collection: the beaver-fur stovepipe hat that the foundation believes is one of only three in existence worn by Lincoln.
“It’s been segments and articles like this one that has contributed to some of that controversy,” Kalm said during an interview. “And you know, of course, that makes our job at fundraising that much more difficult, because it is such a signature item in the collection. But the thing to remember is there are 1,400 pieces in the collection.”
Some historians have questioned the provenance of the hat, citing discrepancies in the stories told by the family who owned it for generations. At the same time, many agree that it’s the right size for Lincoln’s head, and it bears the mark of his Springfield hat-maker.
Lowe said the state historian is still looking into the hat’s authenticity.
“He and his crew are looking into every nook and cranny to see what we can and cannot confirm about the hat,’’ Lowe said.
The foundation is continuing to talk to state legislators about options, including using $5 million from the state’s hotel occupancy tax to help pay the loan. The tax is collected to promote tourism.
But lawmakers have been hesitant to help, citing the state’s financial woes — and concerns over the authenticity of some of the artifacts. At a hearing in November in the Illinois House of Representatives, they questioned Knorowski about the foundation’s financing and fundraising practices. But they delayed a vote that would have asked the auditor general’s office to conduct a management audit of the relationship between the museum and the foundation.
“We are working with them in a very cooperative fashion to try to address their questions and concerns,’’ Kalm said.
‘That would be a loss’
The museum has thousands of artifacts, and the Taper Collection represents just a small portion of its overall collection, said Chris Wills, the museum’s communications director.
“There are wonderful pieces, but it’s certainly not the only thing we have to offer,’’ he said.
He pointed out an exhibit themed to Mary Lincoln’s mourning period after her husband’s death. It included a letter written by the grief-stricken first lady that had been donated to the museum. The letter was paired with a black mourning scarf from the Taper Collection.
On the day the fourth graders visited, many bypassed the glass cases of the Treasures Gallery without a glance. But 10-year-old Eva Kirk and her father Kevin Kirk, of Springfield, stopped to investigate the artifacts.
He was aware of the financial issues surrounding the Taper Collection and had heard on the news that some of the artifacts might have to be sold.
“That would be a loss,’’ he said. “Anything that has anything to do with Lincoln needs to be here in this museum to be preserved. I mean, this is not just for our generation and not just for their generation,’’ he said, pointing to Eva, who was wearing a pioneer bonnet purchased in the gift shop.
Kirk had made his own donation to the museum — a rare biography of Abraham Lincoln that he found at a yard sale.
“This is an amazing museum,’’ he said. “You just can’t ask for a better way to remember the greatest president.’’