Gov. J.B. Pritzker has named five appointees, including former U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood, to a board charged with overseeing the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.
The appointments announced today come one week after Pritzker terminated Alan Lowe as the institution’s director. Lowe, hired in 2016, was the fourth director of the institution – not including interim directors who ran things for more than three years -- that opened in 2005.
LaHood, who served as secretary of transportation under President Barack Obama, is a Republican and will be the board’s chairman. The institution has not had a board since it became a standalone institution in 2017, even though state law says that the ALPLM should have an 11-member board. It’s not clear when the governor might appoint additional members. Appointments must be confirmed by the state Senate.
Kathryn Harris of Springfield said she learned from Illinois Times that she had been appointed to the board of the ALPLM, where she worked as the head of the library division before retiring in 2015. She said she applied after being asked by the governor’s office, via email, a week ago. “It was a week ago today I got the email,” she said. Since then, Harris said she’s had two conversations with the governor’s staff, both involving procedural questions involved with the application process as opposed to policy questions about how the institution should be run.
The application, Harris said, was more than 30 pages long, and the governor’s office wanted it finished by Monday. “It really was quite detailed,” Harris said. “I had to remember stuff I thought I had forgotten. Everything but when was the last time I went to the bathroom.”
Pritzker’s staff did not immediately respond to an email.
Harris pointed out that the library side of the ALPLM includes the Illinois State Historical Library, which concerns itself with state history that isn’t related to Lincoln. “It will always be, for me, the Illinois State Historical Library with the Lincoln collection,” says Harris, a past president of the Abraham Lincoln Association who still sits on the private group’s board. “It’s one of the best collections of Illinois history that exists. Mr. Lincoln just happened to show up.”
Under Lowe, the ALPLM last year loaned artifacts, including a copy of the Gettysburg Address worth an estimated $20 million, to Mercury One, a Texas nonprofit headed by conservative talk show personality Glenn Beck. The loan for an exhibition that was Mercury One’s first was made with less planning than had been the case in prior occasions when the Gettysburg Address left Springfield. The Mercury One conservator charged with taking care of the relics was a recent college graduate who had worked as a server at Plucker’s Wing Bar less than a year before Mercury One hired her.
Prior to the ALPLM becoming a standalone institution two years ago, the now-defunct Illinois Historic Preservation Agency oversaw the institution, with the IHPA board tasked with approving all loans of artifacts. Harris said she supports a return to that sort of oversight, with board approval required before loans are made and applications to borrow materials required months before decisions are made so that the ALPLM can be assured that borrowing institutions meet requirements and standards set by the American Alliance of Museums, which publishes best-practices protocols.
“Heavens, yes,” Harris said.
Other appointees announced Thursday include Joan Brodsky, a member of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation board that provides financial support for the institution; Gary Johnson, president of the Chicago History Museum; and Eunice Santos, professor and dean of the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, said the governor's office told him last week that the appointment process would begin this week. He praised LaHood's appointment. "I think that's a good move," Manar said. "That caliber of individual, I think, does two things. It raises the stature of the board and, number two, it brings a breadth of experience."
Asked if he had any concerns about Lowe's tenure with no board in place, Manar said he didn't have any. But the ALPLM needs a board, he said.
"The board's role is to provide oversight, unlike any other state agency, in so many different ways," Manar said. "It's apparent that's been lacking at the library and museum. ... Clearly, there's going to be a significant reset here on any number of levels. And it's my hope that the museum can land in a place that allows it to become what most believe it can become."
Manar also praised Pritzker for choosing board members from across the state and for installing a member of the institution's private foundation on the board. The foundation has been hit by controversy in recent years as it has threatened to auction artifacts to repay a loan used to acquire relics, including a stovepipe hat with shaky provenance that Lowe said will no longer be displayed.
"It's time we moved past this upheaval," Manar said. "I'm hoping the governor's administration has set into motion something that will result in balance."
Contact Bruce Rushton at email@example.com.