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Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013 12:01 am

Accredit crunch

 More than eight years after it opened, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is seeking accreditation.

The move to gain accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums comes three years after the AAM issued a report on ALPLM operations, finding problems ranging from awkward governance to financial concerns to a lack of strategic long-term planning (“A museum divided,” April 5, 2012, illinoistimes.com).

Gov. Pat Quinn is aware of the lack of accreditation and has asked boards of the three organizations with a stake in museum operations to have a joint meeting, said Christopher Wills, spokesman for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency that runs the museum. The Dec. 12 gathering will be the first-ever meeting of the boards of the IHPA, the museum’s private fundraising foundation and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Advisory Board. The advisory board had languished under former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who didn’t appoint anyone to fill lapsed terms, but Quinn has appointed a full slate of new members over the past two years.

Steven Beckett, chairman of the advisory board who is also a University of Illinois law professor, said that accreditation is a priority.

“There’s no question: We’re pushing for it,” Beckett said.

Tony Leone, a former IHPA board member whose term expired last summer, said that accreditation is long overdue and that he and other IHPA trustees had repeatedly asked ALPLM director Eileen Mackevich about the lack of accreditation.

“Several board members were shocked to find out we weren’t accredited,” Leone said. “I brought it up almost every board meeting. I’d ask her (Mackevich) how accreditation was going. At first, she’d say ‘It’s a long process’ and left everyone with the impression that it wasn’t a priority. … We’re talking three years now that she’s (Mackevich) been hired and there’s been no serious movement for accreditation.”

Mackevich said that the institution has begun a “self study” period that is a prelude to seeking accreditation. Eventually, she said, the institution will develop a mission statement, a work plan and a strategic plan that are needed to secure accreditation.

“We are in the process of working very hard,” Mackevich said. “We have drafted a number of documents for study. … We are in the interviewing process to develop a fuller understanding of what people’s jobs are.”

As part of a modernization effort, the museum has also started cataloging artifacts acquired since 1972 that include such treasures as a Confederate soldier’s frock coat and empty whiskey bottles, Mackevich said. The AAM in 2010 recommended that ALPLM increase efforts to digitize artifacts, and the institution is doing that by digitizing historic photographs, Mackevich said.

The drive for accreditation quietly gained steam in September, when the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation, a nonprofit organization tasked with raising funds to support the institution, signed a contract with Karen Witter, retired associate director of the Illinois State Museum, to guide the accreditation process. In contrast to the ALPLM, the state museum has been accredited since the 1970s.

It isn’t clear what Witter is being paid. Wills said that the contract with the private foundation rather than the state saves taxpayer money.

“I see my role as a coach, advisor and resource,” Witter said. “I just think it’s positive that there are efforts underway to continually look for opportunities to improve. … With challenges in state government and staff doing more with less, carving out time to do this kind of planning is really, really difficult.”

Witter said it’s impossible to predict how long it might take for the APLM to gain accreditation.

“There’s no simple answer to that,” Witter said. “It takes many museums a couple of years once they’ve committed to this process.”

Fewer than 800 U.S. museums, including 26 in Illinois, are accredited by the AAM, and that’s a small fraction of existing museums, Witter said. If the ALPLM gains accreditation, it will join such institutions as The Art Institute of Chicago and the McLean County Museum of History in Bloomington on the list of accredited museums in Illinois.

Accreditation isn’t on the top of everyone’s priority list.

“I don’t think it’s a bad idea,” said IHPA trustee Daniel Arnold. “I don’t think it’s an extreme priority. I think it’s something along the way that we should achieve.”

But Paula Kaufman, a member of the institution’s advisory board, said that accreditation is important, if only to help an institution find ways to improve during the accreditation process.

“It’s both routine and major,” said Kaufman, who is on a leave of absence from her position as librarian for the University of Illinois. “Every healthy organization should review itself with outside help on a fairly regular basis – not every year, but every five or ten years. I don’t think that’s been done.”

Beckett said that credibility is part of the equation.

“I think accreditation is important because it demonstrates that an institution like the library and museum follows best practices and that scholars and the public who want to come there and do research and see things can feel comfortable and know that the information they’re receiving is accurate,” Beckett said. “I have high hopes that this will be done with all deliberate speed.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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