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Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018 12:25 am

In a box

ALPLM won't show controversial hat

A hat that purportedly but not provably belonged to Abraham Lincoln is off the display list at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum pending review of the artifact’s provenance that has been in question for years.


The announcement by the museum that the hat, which is not on regular exhibition, won’t be taken out for public viewing until provenance is reviewed comes in the wake of a Wednesday report by WBEZ radio in Chicago, which revealed that the private foundation that owns the hat engaged in secret efforts to prove that the hat is authentic. The efforts, which involved DNA analysis by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and top historians from the Smithsonian Institution and the Chicago History Museum, failed to verify that the hat is real.

“What we learn, no matter what it says about the hat’s origins, will be shared with the public,” Alan Lowe, ALPLM executive director, wrote in a prepared statement announcing that provenance will be reviewed by the museum.

Chris Wills, ALPLM spokesman, said that the museum already has started research efforts to determine whether the hat is real. “It’s something that’s been taking place, as time permits, at least for a couple of months,” Wills said. “The general idea is, we’re conducting new research doing a new review of all the evidence to come to as solid a conclusion as we can. Until that happens, it won’t be displayed.”

According to the WBEZ report, the private foundation’s verification efforts began in 2013 and were kept secret from the public institution, although ALPLM curator James Cornelius was in the know. When federal agents visited the museum to collect DNA samples from the hat and other Lincoln artifacts in 2015, Cornelius encouraged them to present themselves as a "news crew" upon arrival, according to the station’s reporting.


"I think there was just a level of secrecy by our foundation, helped by at that point by a member of our staff, to do that DNA testing that just seemed...very, very strange to me," Lowe told the Chicago station.


The foundation told WBEZ that it summarized authentication efforts for museum officials and the governor's office when asking for state funding to retire a $9.7 million debt incurred in 2007, when the private group borrowed more than $20 million to buy the hat and more than 1,500 artifacts from a member of the foundation board. The governor's office last spring declined the request for money, saying it wanted to see a business plan from the foundation.


Cornelius was terminated on Wednesday. Wills declined comment when asked why. Cornelius could not be reached for comment. The curator had been on administrative leave since last spring. The museum has refused to release records showing why he was put on leave and why he was suspended last year for insubordination. Illinois Times, which had previously been granted Cornelius’ disciplinary records, sued the ALPLM in July under the state Freedom of Information Act to obtain the records. The lawsuit remains pending.

It’s the second time since 2016 that the paper has sued the institution after being denied records. After the paper filed suit two years ago, the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, which then ran the ALPLM, turned over records memorializing efforts to obtain grants for the Papers of Abraham Lincoln project, which aims to digitize and put online every document read or written by Lincoln.

The WBEZ report has set off something of a firestorm that has been building since the foundation went public earlier this year with pleas for state funds to retire its debt for artifacts, which the foundation has said might have to be auctioned if a bank loan due next year isn't paid.

Concerned about the foundation’s finances and penchant for secrecy, State Rep. Jeanne Ives, R-Wheaton, in recent months has said that private foundations formed to support public institutions should be required to follow the requirements of the state Freedom of Information Act and the Open Meetings Act. On Wednesday, State Rep. Tim Butler, R-Springfield, called for legislative hearings on the private group’s finances and the hat’s provenance. Historians who prepared the 2013 report for the foundation that included a suggestion that the hat not be presented as an ironclad Lincoln relic should testify, Butler told the State Journal-Register, and so should someone from the FBI. According to the WBEZ report the FBI insisted on secrecy and performed the testing at no charge. It’s not clear why the federal agency would perform free testing at the request of a private group.

Controversy over the hat, which the state has valued at $6.5 million, erupted in 2012, when the Chicago  Sun-Times reported questions about provenance which, it turned out, had been raised by an appraiser before the sales agreement was reached five years earlier.

After Illinois Times published a 2013 story in which DNA experts suggested that dandruff or some other material could definitively link Lincoln to the hat, the IHPA board discussed tests but took no action. Cornelius was against the idea, at one point interrupting then board member Tony Leone, who favored testing. “This is a dead issue,” Cornelius asserted. “This is a non-issue. Dandruff, bone, hair – it’s not there."


Nine months later, the private foundation received the report from historians from the Smithsonian and the Chicago History Museum stating that proof is insufficient to present the hat as undeniably having belonged to Lincoln. Eight months after the report was written, Wayne Whalen, then chairman of the foundation board, told Illinois Times that the foundation was conducting an internal review of provenance. He did not mention the report from outside experts stating that the hat could not be proved authentic. "I'll wait and see what the committee has to say," Whalen said when asked why an outside group hadn't been asked to evaluate provenance.


In his written statement released Thursday, Lowe said that the ALPM only learned "over the past months" that the private foundation had arranged for DNA testing of the hat, and he acknowledged strained relations.


"The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum needs a strong partnership with a private foundation to fully pursue our mission, so it is troubling to see difficulties in our relationship with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation," Lowe wrote. "The foundation should always provide prompt, complete information to the presidential library." 

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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