An exhibit from a Washington, D.C., museum has been canceled by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum due to concerns about Ku Klux Klan robes and other displays.
"Spies, Traitors, Saboteurs: Fear and Freedom in America," created by the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., has been on tour since at least 2012 and had previously been shown in such places as the Oklahoma City National Memorial, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, the Chicago History Museum, the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie and four presidential libraries, including institutions dedicated to Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, where the exhibit appeared in 2019.
The ALPLM, which paid $70,000 to show the artifacts through January 2021, will not open the exhibit to the public after receiving negative reviews from African Americans who recently were invited to take an advance look. Museum officials say that historians and the institution's staff agreed with the decision.
Teresa Haley, president of the Springfield and state chapters of the NAACP, said that her organization was prepared to organize demonstrations if the exhibit had opened.
"I thought it was disgusting," said Haley, who was among the people who got an advance look. "I thought it was a slap in the face to Black people. It pissed me off."
In addition to Klan robes, the exhibit features fragments of planes that hit the World Trade Center and displays on such events as the burning of the White House during the War of 1812 and the 1971 bombing of the U.S. Senate wing of the Capitol. The ALPLM would not allow Illinois Times to view the displays.
Lance Tawzer, exhibits director, told the museum board last week that the institution knew that the displays were provocative, but as the time neared to reopen the ALPLM on July 1, the staff took another look at the exhibit, which had been set to open in March, when the museum closed due to pandemic. The museum, he said, called in "focus groups" and asked opinions. "What we realized straightaway is we couldn't open the exhibit as it stood," Tawzer said. "It was very evident that emotions were very raw. We were very sensitive to the fact that we didn't want our institution to be seen as insensitive."
Tawzer and Toby Trimmer, chief operating officer, told the board that the ALPLM has talked to the International Spy Museum about concerns and will try to negotiate a refund. "They've determined that the exhibit as-is will no longer tour," Trimmer told the ALPLM board. A spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C., institution did not immediately return an interview request.
Kathryn Harris, an ALPLM board member who got an advance look, said that she was bothered by depictions of the Black Panthers and also felt internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II was not properly handled. She told colleagues on the board that while Klan robes were displayed, there was no information on what the Klan has done.
"When you entered the museum, it just said 'sensitive materials' – that's all the sign said: 'Caution, sensitive material,'" Harris said in an interview. "That wasn't enough. It was beyond sensitive. It was offensive." Sunshine Clemons, founder of the Springfield chapter of Black Lives Matter, said she didn't make it through the entire exhibit, but what she saw didn't impress. "I felt that it definitely needed work," Clemons said. "I had a lot of issues, personally, with the Black Panthers display." Harris said there was no mention that the Panthers organized food programs and health care clinics.
Trimmer said that the ALPLM will establish a community advisory board in hopes of identifying concerns before exhibits are set up instead of at the last minute. "Look, the bottom line is, we're going to have to do a little more listening over here," Trimmer told the board.
Ray LaHood, chairman of the ALPLM board, told colleagues that he wants three trustees on the community board.
"Our board needs to be involved in this," LaHood told colleagues. "I don't think there's a higher priority than getting the community involved in how we welcome people to the museum and how we exhibit artifacts that we have access to."
Clemons sees progress.
"I personally think it's a win," she said. "The museum wanted to reach out to the community – to me, that's a win. I don't think they've reached out in this respect before.
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