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Thursday, Feb. 21, 2013 02:54 am

Hat trick

What lies beneath Abe World’s Lincoln hat?



Nothing – save perhaps a shredded writ of habeas corpus – says “Lincoln” like a stovepipe hat. Abe World relies on his hats as a graphical motif – I count four of them on the home page alone – and the innermost room of the Treasures Gallery is a sanctum sanctorum described by the museum as “in effect an upturned stovepipe.”  

From now until summer’s end, visitors can see a real hat amongst the cartoon hats and the metaphorical hats – a beaver stovepipe hat made by Josiah H. Adams’ shop in Springfield. The museum (or rather its supporting foundation) obtained the hat when it bought the Louise Taper Collection of Lincolniana a few years back. The hat has been put on temporary display as part of the Lincoln 204th birthday observances.

No question it’s a real hat – but whether it’s really Lincoln’s hat is not so clear. Last April Chicago Sun-Times reporter David McKinney – a man who as Statehouse bureau chief has learned to expect shady dealing in Springfield – raised questions about its authenticity.

There has been much back-and-forthing by the experts over when and where  Illinois farmer William Waller (whose family sold it to a collector who sold it to Taper) was given the hat by Lincoln. No account, however, explains the central mystery surrounding the hat, which is, Why would anyone give a stranger his fine beaver hat? Sure, I’ve imagined scenarios in which famous people gave me unlikely pieces of their clothing – one involved a certain TV reporter in Champaign in the 1980s, and that’s all I’m going to say about that – but if you ask me, the story looks funny in daylight.

James Cornelius, curator of the museum’s Lincoln Collection, told McKinney that the hat question “cannot be proven or disproven.” Our redoubtable Bruce Rushton (“Scratching an itch,” Feb. 7) found experts who suggest that what cannot be proven or disproven cannot be proven or disproven until the museum at least subjects the hat to expert forensic analysis.

This the museum seems disinclined to do, for pretty obvious reasons. If the hat is clearly fake it would embarrass the foundation. If it is clearly authentic the museum would have enhancd its reputation among busybodies like Rushton and me, but the touring public already thinks it’s legit. If tests are inconclusive (and they are likely to be) they will only keep the controversy simmering.

Even if testing the hat fails to prove its authenticity, testing would prove the museum’s own authenticity as a responsible historical institution. Merely by displaying the hat among Lincoln’s  personal belongings, the museum attests to its authenticity. The museum knows most of the touring public are suckers – indeed it counts on it. The museum’s tacit identification of it as genuine thus is misleading at best, and dishonest at worst.

The episode raises questions that have come up many times before at Abe World. What are the obligations of a museum to historical truth? To the touring public? Cornelius has implied that the burden of proof is on doubters to prove an item in a museum collection is not authentic. I believe that it is the responsibility of museum professionals to prove that it is, thus separating the real from the spurious on the public’s behalf. One doesn’t need to cite arcane museological doctrines to justify that; truth in advertising requires it.

Every museum faces such dilemmas, but not every museum deals with them as evasively as Abe World. The Chicago History Museum has in its possession a blood-stained cloak worn by Mary Todd on the night her husband was killed. Here the issue is not whether the cloak was Mary’s, but whether the blood on it belonged to her husband. In the Lincoln business, this matters, the public having an absolutely medieval fascination with the blood of saints.

The CHM does not conceal the questions about the artifact’s authenticity. Rather they built a web exhibit around it that explains how tricky it can be to establish apparently simple facts about such objects. (See The blood that soaked Mary’s cloak that night might have come from Henry Rathbone, a guest in the Lincolns’ box who suffered a bloody knife wound as he struggled with John Wilkes Booth. Further complications owe to the fact that the cloak has been handled by many people over the years, each of whom might have left skin cells and DNA that confuses analysis.

The curators there have turned curatorial fastidiousness into a lesson for the public in how the authenticity of historically significant objects is assessed – a lesson that adds to one’s fascination with the relic rather than diminishing it. By grappling with these issues in this way, the Chicago institution demonstrates the difference between a museum and a sideshow.

Contact James Krohe Jr.

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