A lackluster report card
Consultant criticizes ALPLM
A shaky governance structure and lack of planning is affecting the bottom line at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, according to a consultant’s report.
The institution lacks a strategic plan that establishes priorities, according to the June 25 report prepared by Karen Witter, a consultant who worked under a contract with the institution’s private fundraising foundation. The institution is missing out on chances to procure grants due to a lack of long-range planning, she says. Much of the money for exhibits and programs is now coming from corporations.
“It is not clear how new exhibitions are developed or who is responsible for developing public programs,” wrote Witter, who is the former associate director for the Illinois State Museum. “An institution of the caliber of the ALPLM should be able to raise significant funds through grants. … More advanced planning for programs and exhibitions is needed given the lead time necessary to apply for grants.”
The museum is not accredited, and Witter was tasked with recommending steps that should be taken to gain accreditation. Her report comes amid a power struggle for control of the institution, with IHPA officials seeing no problems with governance while members of the institution’s advisory board push for accreditation and urge that the museum be removed from IHPA and put under the advisory board’s control as a standalone agency. IHPA board members have said that accreditation isn’t vital.
Witter questioned the expertise of staff and found that vacancies in key positions, particularly the lack of a director of education and a director of exhibits, are hindering the institution. ALPLM also lacks a state historian to oversee the research and collections department. IHPA director Amy Martin has said that the hiring process is underway and that filling those positions is a priority.
“There are many talented staff members with diverse and relevant experience, but fewer people with the museum experience and expertise which are essential for an institution of the scope and caliber of the ALPLM,” Witter wrote. “There is not a culture of supporting ongoing professional development to provide staff members training in museum best practices and other relevant issues.”
Witter also found friction and a lack of coordination between the institution and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation, the ALPLM’s nonprofit fundraising arm. The foundation, which sells memberships that come with free admission to the institution, must pay a fee to IHPA each time a member visits the museum. Witter found tension due to a perception that foundation memberships are costing the ALPLM revenue it might otherwise realize from paid admissions.
“The membership program is perceived to be ‘the Foundation’s’ program that benefits the Foundation rather than ‘our’ program, which benefits the overall ALPLM institution,” Witter wrote. “There are missed opportunities for engaging members. It appears the Foundation plans member events, and the ALPLM plans public programs/events independently of each other. … The requirement for the Foundation to pay a fee to the state each time a member visits the museum is highly unusual. It appears to create a disincentive for the Foundation to encourage members to become repeat visitors, which is contrary to practices in other museums where members are encouraged to visit frequently.”
The payment arrangement fuels a “yours vs. mine” situation, Witter wrote, and would probably be “perceived negatively” by outside reviewers tasked with evaluating ALPLM for accreditation.
Evaluators from the American Association of Museums (now called the American Alliance of Museums), which accredits museums, pointed out some of the same concerns and issues as Witter in a 2010 report that Witter says hasn’t been embraced.
“There is little evidence that ALPLM has followed up on the valuable recommendations and resources referenced in the report,” Witter wrote in a summary of shortfalls. “It is amazing what is accomplished in spite of the above issues. Abraham Lincoln provides the cachet that makes much of the success possible.”
Governance is a problem, according to Witter.
“The three boards (IHPA, foundation board and library advisory board) operate relatively independently from each other and aren’t aligned around a common vision and shared strategic priorities,” Witter wrote. “(T)here is not a shared understanding of the roles and responsibilities of each entity.”
Who’s to blame for problems identified by Witter?
“The purpose of the report was not to assign blame,” IHPA spokesman Chris Wills wrote in an email. “It was to get expert insights on how to improve the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. However, it must be noted that the ALPLM executive director has been in place for four years and ultimately is responsible for the institution’s performance.”
ALPLM executive director Eileen Mackevich did not return phone calls, but she defended herself in a written response to Witter’s report distributed to members of the institution’s advisory board. She suggested that Witter should have worked more closely with the advisory board in evaluating the institution and charting a path toward accreditation, and she criticized Witter for not speaking with more people.
“The Witter report might have painted a fuller picture had she met with many at the library and not the few,” Mackevich wrote. “I do quite agree with Ms. Witter and others that the future of ALPLM is unclear at this point. … As we all agree, unilateral decision-making dilutes the creative energy of planning. I say, let’s work together to create a robust, popular and wide-ranging schedule of events. And let’s have some fun in doing so.”
A program that is digitizing papers associated with Lincoln regularly receives federal grants, Mackevich wrote, but she acknowledged that other applications have fallen short. In at least one case, the National Endowment for the Humanities in rejecting an application found that the ALPLM staff was too small, she said. She said that she wants to offer programs for foundation members, but the foundation doesn’t provide current membership lists and contact information. She also suggested establishing relationships with the University of Illinois and the National Archives Records Administration that oversees the nation’s other presidential libraries.
“”(W)e could…establish ourselves quickly as a leader among presidential libraries under NARA (the national archives),” Mackevich wrote. “We could benefit greatly from closer University of Illinois affiliation with their library school, Krannert Center, music school and business school. On a personal note, I continue to keep the NARA lines open. … We recently invited Mr. David Ferriero, archivist of the United States, to speak about the second decade of the museum, and I am pleased to say that he has graciously accepted our invitation to speak here.”
Sunny Fischer, chairwoman of the IHPA board, said that she has not read the report thoroughly. She said she believes that her board and the foundation board work well together. Noting that Martin, the agency’s director, has said the hiring process has begun for vacant positions that Witter called key, she said that progress is being made.
“I don’t think that there was anything (in the report) that was terribly shocking,” Fischer said. “We’re moving forward. … There are some things that still need a lot of work, not so much with governance as with staffing and money.”
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.