Indiana Is Ready to Party but Can We Save the Lincoln Collection?

March 11, 2008

Indiana Writers Group column for immediate release (730 words)

by Andrea Neal

Indiana’s celebration of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial got off to a rocky start last week. Just as state officials were releasing a new celebratory Lincoln license plate in Indianapolis, the Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne announced it was closing.

So we gain a license plate; we lose a prestigious collection of Lincoln-related documents and artifacts. Not exactly an even trade.

But it should set the agenda for the Indiana Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, whose job is to coordinate events for the two-year celebration leading up to and after the Feb. 12, 2009 bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth. The commission should summon interested parties and submit a proposal to keep the museum’s collection in Indiana, the state where Lincoln came of age.

Ironically, the museum had been front and center in the planning until the announcement that it will shut down June 30 with its documents put into digital form and its collection temporarily mothballed.

“It was certainly a surprise and it’s unfortunate it’s happening now,” said William Bartelt of Newburgh, commission vice chair.

The private museum has been in Fort Wayne since 1931 when it was created by Lincoln National Life Insurance Co.; its demise may have been sealed in 1998 when the company moved its corporate headquarters from Fort Wayne to Philadelphia.

The Lincoln collection is one of the country’s largest valued at $20 million. It includes copies of the Emancipation Proclamation and a 13th Amendment signed by Lincoln; thousands of 19th Century prints, engravings, newspapers and photographs; and family belongings including a cane carried by Lincoln himself.

Annual attendance at the museum was just 40,000, and school children visits had dropped from 12,000 in 1996 to 7,500 last year, a trend common at many small museums due to field trip budget cuts at schools. While the museum’s long-term prospects in Fort Wayne were poor, the bicentennial would have boosted attendance in the short-term and ignited the interest of educators through 2009.

Lincoln Financial Foundation, which runs the museum, has been tight-lipped about its plans. “Through invitation, the foundation will host a national informational event in April to explore solutions for the collection with potential public partners and provide them with a better understanding of the collection items. Interested public parties should contact the museum for more information,” said spokeswoman Annette Moser.

The word “national” should make Hoosiers cringe. Public and not-for-profit historical organizations, led by the commission, should be proactive and try to keep this precious Lincoln material in Indiana. Among existing institutions that could play a major role in such a bid are the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial, Lincoln State Park and Lincoln Pioneer Village in Spencer County and the Indiana Historical Society in Indianapolis, which has a respectable Lincoln collection already.

History matters and Indiana needs to stake its claim to Lincoln with the same fervor as Kentucky, where he was born, and Illinois, where he spent his adult years and rose to political prominence. Lincoln’s Indiana upbringing – the years 1816-1830 — was hugely influential, says Bartelt, whose book on that topic will be published soon by the Indiana Historical Society.

James H. Madison, Indiana University professor of history and a member of the advisory committee to the national Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, agrees.

“I really do think that he is the greatest American of all time,” Madison says. “Every time I read about him I come away more impressed. And then you add to his achievements the time and place of his growing up, that is, in southern Indiana when it was very close to the frontier and when his formal education was very limited.”

Even the general public, whose historical knowledge has been less than stellar on assessments of such things, picked Lincoln as the greatest president in a February Harris Poll. (A plurality of 20 percent ranked Lincoln as No. 1, compared with 14 percent who chose Ronald Reagan, 12 percent apiece for Franklin D. Roosevelt and George Washington and 11 percent for John F. Kennedy.)

Indiana’s commission no doubt thought its job would be little more than party planning for the most popular president, But its success now will be judged by a more substantive standard: Has the bicentennial celebration enhanced the quality of and commitment to Lincoln scholarship in Indiana? Or have we lost one of the state’s great Lincoln treasures?

Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at aneal@inpolicy.org.




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