A presidential chat

Picking the brain of ALPM head Alan Lowe

click to enlarge Alan Lowe, director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, says he’s looking for improvements and efficiencies. “I think we’re doing a lot of great things, but is there, maybe, a better way we can do it.” - PHOTO COURTESY U.S. NATIONAL ARCHIVES
Alan Lowe, director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, says he’s looking for improvements and efficiencies. “I think we’re doing a lot of great things, but is there, maybe, a better way we can do it.”
Nine months into his tenure as director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, Alan Lowe looks and sounds like a man at ease.

Since arriving in Springfield, Lowe has overseen a shakeup at the Papers of Abraham Lincoln Project and watched the governor issue an executive order that will make the ALPLM, now a division of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, a standalone institution beginning July 1. This week, Lowe sat down for an interview with Illinois Times and discussed subjects ranging from the future of the papers project to the pending separation from IHPA to whether a hat that the institution says once belonged to Lincoln is authentic. Following is a condensed excerpt, edited for brevity and clarity. An unedited recording of the 30-minute interview is available below.

Let’s talk about money. As you know, the state is going through some tough times.

Short, and particularly long, term, having that additional flexibility as a standalone agency will allow us to say, “How can we become more efficient?” I’m not just saying that. I’ve really tried to take a look at every part of our operations here since I’ve gotten here. I think we’re doing a lot of great things, but is there, maybe, a better way we can do it.

There have been questions raised about the hat. There have been questions raised about the clock from Herndon law office. In 2014, then head of the (presidential library) foundation Wayne Whalen said that the foundation was going to be doing an internal review as to the authenticity of some of these items that questions have been raised about. Given the questions that have been raised about the hat, should the institution continue to display it as it has, putting it forth as “This is Lincoln’s hat, there’s no question about it whatsoever?”

Yes, they should. I’m convinced in talking to people of the authenticity of that artifact. Again, that’s something down the road for our historians to speak more to. I know there’s been controversy about it. But, that’s where I stand on it.

What have people said to you that convinced you that it was real?

As I’ve talked to people on our staff who have more knowledge than I do, in terms of that background, they seem to be convinced that this is the truth, the real deal. So, again, it’s not something that I’ve said, “Well, you’re right and I’m wrong.” My understanding is, they’re convinced of the provenance and the validity of it, so that’s where I’m staying with it.

Let’s talk for a second, if we could, about the papers project. It’s undergone some staff changes, it’s undergone some budget cuts.

We have a commitment to getting the project done correctly and creating a product. That’s our real focus. When I got here, I kind of looked at every department – still going through some of that right now – to say, what are we doing, how are we doing it, are we doing it in the best way possible. And papers was one of the departments I looked at fairly early on and realized, you know, there has been no product for 17 years. That’s something we certainly should have. A good deal of money’s been expended on it. I think it’s a good goal to have this published. How do we get from here to there? As we started looking at the operations of it, I though there were significant issues. At the end of the day, again, we want a product and a well-done product and a well-managed staff. How do we support that staff, give them the guidance they need, have the right types of editorial policies and so forth in place so that we’re all proud of the product at the end of the day. The whole idea is to preserve and promote the legacy of Lincoln and encourage scholarship, study of Lincoln. And you can’t do that if it’s never published.

Does something like this ever get done? If so, what’s a reasonable estimate? I think they’ve been working on George Washington for in excess of a half century.

I think there needs to be a reasonable end point. We need to be able to say, based on the data that we have and the work plan we have, which is something we badly need, this is an anticipated completion date. The universe as it began, which I think is where it should be, is documents to and from Abraham Lincoln. And not beyond that.

Give me some examples of what might be superfluous, something that we might not need to focus on.

I will say that, in the past, there was a focus on pretty much anything that was in the Illinois legislature when he was in the Illinois legislature that, theoretically, he could have seen or known about. I think that might be a bit much. Without being too narrow, we need to be focused, I think would be the word. And that leads to, also, things like annotation policy. How much are you annotating?

When I hear you say that what the Illinois legislature did and said while Lincoln was there might be superfluous – have you talked to Mike Madigan about this?

I appreciate and respect the work of the legislature. I want to encourage many, many works on the history and workings of the legislature. But in terms of our Lincoln documentary editing project, saying that every document that was created in the Illinois legislature during his time there, that’s an overreach in terms of scope, I think.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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