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Meet The New Director Of The Lincoln Museum

Alan Lowe
Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
Alan Lowe

This is the first week on the job for the new director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

Alan Lowe comes to Springfield by way of Texas, where he was founding director of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum.

I want to begin by asking you: Does the director of a museum like this — dedicated to one person — do you have to feel a sense of personal kinship with that individual?

Well I certainly do. I grew up in Kentucky. I always say one of my first memories is going to the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln. So he;s always been someone I’ve admired, who’s at the very top of my list of admired Americans, so I definitely do feel a kinship.

I think, when I’ve worked at the other presidential libraries, you can’t help but do that in a way, because you’re around that story every day.

You were the founding director of the Bush library in Texas?

Sure, that was a very interesting process, to say the least. I went down there very early on — at the very end of the Bush administration they asked me to do that. So I was part of the design process for the building.

So the ground hadn’t even been broken yet.

That’s right, that’s right. So they had just hired an architect and started discussion with Bob (Robert A.M.) Stern; they had hired a museum designer, but had just started those discussions as well. So I was part of that. Put together a great team of National Archives employees — that was part of the National Archives system — and slowly but surely built the place for a great dedication. We’ve been a very busy library ever since — well over a million visitors since (we) opened three years ago.

(It was) an amazing experience working with the president and Mrs. Bush, working with a great private foundation there like we have a wonderful foundation here, and putting together what we want to be a great resource for the people of America. it taught me again the importance of partnerships — at the Bush Library, when you go down you see it’s a terrific partnership with the Bush Foundation and with Southern Methodist University — so that’s one of the things that excites me about here is reaching out and seeing what partners we already have, what other partners we could add, and making sure we have those connections.

You mentioned the National Archives and Records Administration. Most presidential museums, other than the Lincoln Museum, are part of that. That brings the weight of the federal government behind it. Here in Illinois, obviously we’re struggling even to keep the lights on at the prisons, given the financial crisis. Did you have any reservations about going from a big federal system into a state that’s arguably having some really difficult times?

I certainly knew about those difficult times, but I must be honest: as I talked to people, going through the process here and being interviewed ad so forth, I saw a great level of support for the library and museum. Obviously the legacy of Lincoln is important to everyone in this state. So I feel confident in that regard. And again, (t was irresistible to come here and be part of this institution, be part of the Lincoln Legacy, and to be part of Springfield. So I knew about those issues, but I’m very excited to be here.

Do you have concerns about the financial stability of this institution?

No. Again, as we went through the process for my interviews, I Was assured that there is support for it. That people on both sides of the aisle and throughout the state love the library and museum. And so I’m keeping a very positive view of that. And again, we also have great support from our private foundation. So I just want to keep a focus on the future, and figure out how we get from here to there to do great things.

Our speaker of the House here, Michael Madigan, took a personal interest in this institution a couple of years ago — to a lot of people’s surprise, I think — and decided he wanted it to be its own independent state agency. Have you met with the speaker at all in your initial days here or in the interview process?

No, I have not. I have not had the opportunity. I want to, but not so far. The last couple days have been a whirlwind. I’ve been mainly doing meetings right here in this office.

Much like this one, I imagine. Do you have an opinion on — or have you heard any sense of where that might be headed?

No, I don’t, and I don’t have an opinion. Really I’ve said at this point I’m looking here at this library and museum and how it’s functioning: Are we doing things the best way we can? And moving forward with that. So that’s where I am on this issue.

I think there will be some people out there who say: Why is the state of Illinois, when it can barely pay its bills, in the business of memorializing even a great figure from the past such as Abraham Lincoln. Can you make the case for why it’s important for the state, for government, to pay for this sort of activity?

And certainly we heard those concerns when I Was at the federal system of National Archives — when the federal budget was in difficulty, why are we giving money to presidential libraries? I would say, first of all, it is an important legacy, the Lincoln legacy, for all the citizens of this state. Obviously a great citizen of Illinois. So in an intellectual way, that’s an important thing to do.

I would say a more grounded view is this institution does good things for the community; I want to make sure it does even more. Looking at how we can not just bring in museum visitors, but also reach out to school students and be a help to local and state teachers. How can we be that kind of positive force? And I think there’s also an economic impact we have in terms of bringing tourism and so forth. So I think there is a real quantifiable positive impact that we have as well.

I presume you’ve had time to walk around the museum. Anything jump out at you as a highlight, lowlight, anything in between?

Lot of highlights. I want to do this more. I’ve said I want to, over the next few weeks, go through there with a good eye and take a look at things. But right away, it’s truly spectacular exhibit, and the immersive quality is what jumps out at me most of all. Great artifacts. Great research has gone into it. You learn a lot, but also the immersive elements of going through and walking into he early cabin with Lincoln. It’s a different type of experience, and I think a type of experience that can reach a lot of different people in a way that’s very lasting. So I think that’s my biggest impression so far.

That’s one of the things that was a little controversial when the museum opened. The idea — I think it was Bob Rogers’ company — the former Disney “imagineer” comes in and there were some critiques that it was a little overly immersive, if you will, a little less on the scholarship side.

I definitely don’t agree with that. I certainly respect people’s differing opinions. But I think, and throughout my whole career I thought, you don’t have to have one or the other. If we can — through some entertainment, with good research as its foundation, and using good artifacts and so forth to help tell the story — have that entertainment value, then you reach a lot more people than you would otherwise. That’s really what were all about, right? Bringing in people, teaching about history, engaging with the whole diverse set of audiences. So I love it.

As you’re walking through, anything that jumps out at you as something that's “this is what I want to tackle first”? I’ve heard critiques over the years of the Tim Russert (video installation) — Tim Russert’s been passed for quite a while now, and maybe that needs some updating.

Sound clip: “The chaos of a four-way presidential race continues as the campaign of 1860 stumbles toward election day …”

The Tim Russert, you know I’ve heard that from a couple of people. But I’ve got to say the other side of that coin is: You can replace the Tim Russet video right now with a journalist, and nothing against your profession, but in five years, people would say, “We don’t know this person.” Or people coming in now might not know that person if they don’t pay much attention to the news.

So again, that is the kind of thing — I Want to go around with our staff, I want to look at what visitors are saying, I want to talk to our foundation. I want to make sure I get all that input, and see, “OK, is that really something we nee to think about changing, or is it something that our visitors seem to like?” So that’s really what it’s going to come down to.

We’ve been through the 10th anniversary of the museum now, which coincided with the anniversary of the end of the Civil War. We’ve been through a lot of the Lincoln anniversaries. How do you continue to attract visitors without those sort of big news pegs?

First of all, we need to take a look at our special exhibit program. They do great special exhibits here. What are we doing that will intrigue people to come for the first time, or certainly to come back again if they’ve been here before. I certainly learned at the Bush library it’s something to put a lot of focus on. The other thing I also learned is that we need to make sure people know we’re here and what we have to offer. So marketing is part of that process as well.

But I never really worry about Lincoln getting lost in those things because he’s still so relevant to us in multitudes of ways today. It’s just how do we make sure we’re hitting all those points of that relevance for people?

This interview has been edited and condensed. A version of this story was broadcast on Illinois Edition on July 14, 2016.

Brian Mackey formerly reported on state government and politics for NPR Illinois and a dozen other public radio stations across the state. Before that, he was A&E editor at The State Journal-Register and Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.
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