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The Joys of Public History

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This story from Illinois says so much about how hard it is to do public history with integrity.

Just months after authoring a critical report that raised further questions about the provenance of a multimillion dollar stovepipe hat purported to have been owned by President Abraham Lincoln, Illinois’ state historian is out of a job.

A spokesman for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum told WBEZ that Dr. Samuel Wheeler is no longer employed at the ALPLM, where his title was state historian, director of research and collections.

The circumstances of Wheeler’s departure, however, remain unclear. The spokesman declined further comment on whether Wheeler left on his own or whether he was forced out. Wheeler did not respond to WBEZ’s requests for comment. Wheeler’s departure was first reported in the Illinois Times.

The stunning turn of events comes after Wheeler was asked by the former executive director to study the history of the Lincoln hat in August of 2018. His report, which Democratic Gov. JB Pritzker’s administration released in December, shows an exhaustive — but still fruitless — effort to tie the hat to Lincoln.

Trustee Kathryn Harris said she sits on a committee of the ALPLM’s board that is investigating the provenance of the hat, which had recently given Wheeler the go-ahead to contact historical textile experts to give further scrutiny to the hat. She hoped that the results of that investigation would finally put to rest the scandal of whether the hat ever belonged to Lincoln.

She was stunned when she says Wheeler called to tell her he was out of a job and had been escorted out of the building — right after a regular board meeting had adjourned where the matter had not come up.

“I can’t get my head around why this was not told to us at the board meeting. The board was caught unawares,” Harris told WBEZ. “And that to me is not good. I thought the whole thing was unprofessional. It appears sinister and any other negative words you might want to attach to the action.”

In short, historical societies may be for the state, but people who are deeply invested in them very much are old white conservatives who love mythological stories about their states. So whether some hat really belonged to Lincoln matters A LOT to these people. And they are heavily invested in proving that it is true. They are more concerned with that than whether it is actually true. So a state hires a state historian. As part of that job, the historian is supposed to find evidence as to whether the hat is in fact Lincoln’s. The historian, having integrity and following the evidence, says that there is just no evidence in favor of this at all. So he gets canned.

People really love their mythological stories about the past. At a moment when we are actually making progress against the most racist of those stories, it’s worth noting just how intensely those invested in those stories feel about them and the lengths they are willing to go to promote myth over truth.

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