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Thursday, June 12, 2014 12:01 am

Squabbling over the inheritance

Did Illinois history begin in 1809 and end in 1865?

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, front, and museum, rear, feature large rotundas in Springfield, Illinois
PHOTO BY BILL HOGAN/MCT
That nice Mr. Madigan, I’m sure, just wants to help. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency have not been getting along. Friends of both have offered their advice, but this is a marriage that just isn’t working, and House Speaker Madigan has introduced a bill that would effect a divorce.

The bill was introduced without thought or debate, and I don’t want to take it more seriously than it deserves. (It has been tabled for the spring session at least.) The controversy that inspired the bill, however, did at least raise the larger issue of how best to preserve and explain Illinois’ rich history to its own people.

Regular readers know that I am not a fan of the museum in its present form. But I feel about it the way a lot of people feel about Obamacare: It’s a great idea, so make it work better, don’t close it down. The Lincoln story as now told at the museum troubles me less than the story of Illinois that isn’t being told everywhere else.

First, some history about the history. The ALPLM is a museum with a library attached. That library was designated a “Presidential library” to qualify for needed federal money to help build it. (It was because of that designation that some have suggested handing administrative responsibility for the museum and library complex to the National Archives and Records Administration, which manages all the other Presidential libraries.) The problem is, what is now known as the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library isn’t. It is the renamed Illinois State Historical Library, which collected and preserved materials on the state’s political, social and religious history since 1889. A decade ago it was renamed the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library to (quoting the ALPLM website) “reflect its essential role – along with the adjacent Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum – in telling the story of Abraham Lincoln’s life.”

There were compelling reasons to link the library to the museum project, the main one being that it prodded the state into spending some of its money on a badly needed new library building that otherwise might still be unbuilt. The state’s history library has an essential role in telling Lincoln’s story, yes, but that is only one of the stories it was founded to tell.

The museum to which the library that I still think of as the ISHL should be attached is the museum of Illinois history that Illinois doesn’t have yet – a publicly funded museum devoted to telling all its history. Even if you leave the “prehistoric” peoples to the Illinois State Museum, you still have the French traders, the Black Hawk War, Nauvoo and the Mormon War, steamboating, the rise of Chicago with its Great Fire and Great Migration, coal mining (including the central Illinois mine wars), lynchings and race riots in East St Louis, Chicago and Springfield, the death and (possible) resurrection of the Illinois valley. Not to mention the lives of many not-quite Lincolns. The application of even a quarter of the imagination and technical savvy marshaled to create the Presidential museum exhibits would turn any of those stories into a hell of a show.

So – the State of Illinois has a first-rate tourist attraction that needs more and steadier funding and management appropriate to its needs, a venerable history library that has a new building but has lost much of its founding mission and a citizenry that believes that Illinois history began in 1809 and ended in 1865. One has to ask whether the State of Illinois, which governs a commonwealth rich in everything except good government, is capable of responsible stewardship of its own past.

For example, recent reports suggest that Illinois might have more history than it is willing to pay for. Sunny Fischer, who chairs the IHPA board of trustees, noted that while the ALPLM “has been mostly shielded from the worst of the budget cuts over the last few years,” the budget passed by the House of Representatives [in May] ”requires deep cuts to IHPA’s operating budget for historic sites. Unless revised, the ALPLM will be kept whole, while at least 10 state historic sites would need to be closed.”

 Steven Beckett, the author of the bill backed by Madigan and the chairman of the board that would have been put in charge of the Lincoln museum, has described the Lincoln museum as “the crown jewel of history in Illinois.” So it is – but it’s a poor crown that has only one jewel.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.

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