Dem governor of Illinois fires truth-seeking museum director as hat-gate scandal grows

Governor Jay Pritzker of Illinois, scion of the Hyatt Hotel fortune, is bungling the handling of a developing scandal in the state whose license plates proudly proclaim it the "Land of Lincoln."  Instead of going for transparency when embarrassing questions started to be raised about the authenticity of a hat owned by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, he fired the person raising questions, the museum's director.

Andrew Ferguson of The Atlantic explained the doubts about the purported Lincoln relic, and why it is so embarrassing, last May:

Even in our fractious, ill-tempered times, we can all come together to agree on this: $6 million is a lot to pay for a hat. That's true even if the hat is a stovepipe model that once belonged to Abraham Lincoln. If it turns out not to have belonged to Lincoln, well then, the $6 million really does begin to look like a serious extravagance. And if you borrowed the $6 million to pay for the hat that you later discover probably isn't Lincoln's, the whole deal could quickly swell from extravagance to calamity.

And so it might be doing now, in Springfield, Illinois, Lincoln's hometown and the site of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. Two years after the museum opened in 2005, its sponsoring foundation borrowed $25 million to buy the Taper collection, at the time the largest collection of Lincoln stuff in private hands. Louise Taper, the eponymous collector, had, over the previous 30 years, acquired artifacts that one expert refers to, in nontechnical language, as "the superstars."

Among her 1,500 items were Lincoln's billfold and his eyeglasses, his favorite pen, and the gloves he wore to Ford's Theatre the night of his murder, still flecked with blood. She owned the earliest known sample of his handwriting, a leaf torn from a schoolbook. She even owned the chamber pot he used in the White House. And the hat too — as inseparable from the Lincoln image as the whiskers, and one of only three, it was said at the time, that were known to have survived from his day to ours. An assessment placed the value of the hat alone at more than $6 million.

Nobody back in 2007 thought $25 million was a pittance, but not many people said it was an extravagance either, at least publicly. Even in perpetually broke Illinois, times were flush; the Great Recession was a little cloud no bigger than a man's hand rising from the cornfields. At a single stroke, the museum exponentially increased the historical value of its holdings, which until then had comprised mostly documents (including some superstars of its own — one of the five handwritten copies of the Gettysburg Address, for example). The museum was self-consciously cutting-edge in its computer-powered exhibits, using holograms and life-size re-creations and a relentless sequence of optical and sonic effects to divert the attention of visitors away from their cellphones. But the climax of the visitor's experience was to be charmingly low-tech: a final, dimly lit exhibit called the "Treasures Gallery."

A week ago last Friday, Governor Pritzker abruptly fired without explanation the museum's director, who had raised questions about the hat's authenticity.  WBEZ reported:

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker's administration initiated a major shake-up at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield Friday, firing a top administrator who questioned the authenticity of a stovepipe hat that purportedly belonged to Lincoln.

Without explanation, the governor's office terminated the facility's $175,000-a-year executive director, Alan Lowe, who was hired in 2016 with a strong scholarly pedigree.

"The administration terminated Mr. Lowe's employment today," Pritzker spokeswoman Emily Bittner wrote in a statement Friday afternoon. "We cannot comment on personnel matters. We look forward to working with the team of museum professionals, historians and librarians at the [facility] to ensure that the institution is meeting its high standards." (snip)

Last year, Lowe criticized officials with the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation for withholding long-secret reports it had commissioned from historians at the Smithsonian and Chicago History museums — and even the FBI — regarding the authenticity of a stovepipe hat the foundation owns.

The foundation has long claimed the hat, appraised in 2007 at $6.5 million, belonged to Lincoln. But historians and forensic scientists at the FBI who did DNA testing on the hat concluded there was no evidence to tie it to the nation's 16th president.

WBEZ's disclosure of those reports resulted in an embarrassment for the foundation, which regarded the hat as the crown jewel of its collection of Lincolniana.

Governor J.B. Pritzker (photo credit: Lt. Col. Bradford Leighton).

Yesterday, correspondence between Lowe and a top aide to Pritzker, Deputy Governor Jesse Ruiz, was released.  From the Chicago Sun-Times:

"It appears from my discussions with the state historian that he and his team have found no evidence confirming the hat belonged to President Lincoln," Lowe wrote to Deputy Gov. Jesse Ruiz in the June 5 email, first obtained by WBEZ.

"This does not mean that evidence does not exist, but the efforts of our team have been very thorough. We all had hoped that something definitive would be found, but thus far that is not the case," Lowe wrote. (snip)

In his email exchanges with Ruiz, Lowe said the foundation had blocked Wheeler's hat probe by rejecting efforts to have a textile expert evaluate it on-site to "determine what era the hat dates from," as Wheeler described in his May 6 request to foundation CEO Carla Knorowski.

"At this point the Foundation is not permitting an examination of the hat by a costume expert, and therefore I have told the State Historian to put the project on hold," Lowe wrote in the June 5 email.

On Friday, Nick Kalm, the foundation's vice chair, shot down claims of stonewalling.

"We support any and all reasonable steps to further confirm the provenance of the hat," Kalm said in email to the Chicago Sun-Times. "We merely wanted to ensure that any such steps be taken in consultation and coordination with the Foundation, as we are the hat's owners. We never received a response from Director Lowe to our request for a meeting to discuss this important issue."

Lowe and Wheeler did not respond to requests for comment. Pritzker's office said it "cannot comment further on personnel matters" related to Lowe's firing.

It looks like nobody wants to take responsibility from the fiasco, and Lowe's real offense was rocking the boat after a political settlement was worked out:

Former GOP Gov. Jim Edgar — an emeritus foundation director who chaired the board when it purchased the hat with the Taper collection in 2007 — acknowledged reaching out to Pritzker's office to suggest it "may not be the best time to bring up the issue of the hat" as he helped the museum, foundation and governor broker a bill to pass in the spring legislative session.

That bill, signed into law by Pritzker last month, creates a committee of representatives from the foundation and the museum, intended to smooth out the "friction" that sometimes arises between the entities, Edgar said.

"We finally reached a consensus on this bill, and that's when Alan wanted to start bringing up the hat again," Edgar said Friday. "Everyone was getting along for the moment to get it passed, and it wasn't going to help us trying to get this legislation we'd agreed to."

I think this is a classic case of Ring Lardner's classic line being applied: "'Shut up,' he explained."

Hat tip: Peter von Buol.

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