“We will not be in the business of managing a museum,” said Priscilla Brown, vice president of Lincoln Financial Group. Lincoln's charitable arm, the Lincoln Financial Foundation, owns and operates the private museum in Renaissance Square, 200 E. Berry St. The museum is touted as the world's largest private collection of Lincoln memorabilia.
The foundation board voted to close the museum by June 30, citing as reasons too few visitors and lagging interest in history museums compared with more interactive museums. Seventy-nine key artifacts, such as Lincoln's cane and a rocking chair he sat in, will be moved to another public museum or museums. A copy of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Lincoln, as well as one of 13 original copies of the 13th Amendment signed by Lincoln, also will also be offered up for relocation.Brown maintains the decision was not a financial one.
“There will be no money saved from (the closing). This is not at all in the interest of saving money,” she said. According to 2006 Internal Revenue Service documents filed by the nonprofit foundation, the museum's total income was about $458,000, including investment income, sales, admissions and rentals.
Although Friends of the Lincoln Museum's income was about $113,000 in the same year, the foundation paid almost $1.6 million to operate the museum, including salary and benefits of nearly $325,000 for the four highest-paid museum employees.
“The revenue certainly has not covered the cost,” Brown said. By offering up the collection to museums in larger cities, “the Lincoln Museum will now have a bigger stage.”
The decision to close spurred at least one longtime supporter to resign from the Friends of the Lincoln Museum, a group of about 1,000 who volunteer at and help raise funds for the museum.
“I'm sad that the community wasn't given the opportunity to engage in that decision to try and come up with a solution,” said Marilyn Moran Townsend, a board member of Friends of the Lincoln Museum for two years. Townsend said she was told “decision-making was under way” in late fall. Lincoln officials said they began officially telling employees and Friends members early Monday.
“I couldn't support the decisions that were being made. It's been a wonderful asset to our community and a national treasure,” Townsend said.
Lincoln Foundation board members will begin meeting soon to decide the process for dispersing items. All nine members live in the Philadelphia area, where Lincoln moved its national headquarters from Fort Wayne in 1998.
The board has made only two stipulations regarding the collection: “We will not put it in private hands,” Brown said. The entity or entities also must show that they have the financial means to properly maintain the exhibit items and that the items will be located in a place with high numbers of visitors.
“It is possible some of the items will be separated,” Brown said. The originals of the digitized documents likely will remain in Fort Wayne at the current site, although no decision has been made.
About 40 U.S. museums have a strong interest in Abraham Lincoln memorabilia. The future of the museum's award-winning magazine, “Lincoln Lore,” remains unknown, Lincoln officials said. Last year, the Chicago Tribune named the magazine one of the top 50 in the nation.
Brown said the decision to close does not imply the foundation or Lincoln Financial Group is not committed to Fort Wayne. The foundation has given $27 million in grants to Fort Wayne community organizations and projects in the past five years and will grant another $3 million this year, said Sandra Kemmish, director of the foundation. The foundation has given $60 million to six communities in the past five years.
Brown also pointed out that Fort Wayne is Lincoln Financial Group's largest employee base, with 1,850 employees, up from 1,500 three years ago, mostly due to growth of the annuities business.“What we have seen is what is happening around the country. Attendance has declined,” Brown said. “A huge investment would need to be made to energize the exhibit. If we thought the prospects of growing in attendance were high, we probably wouldn't be at the table,” Brown told media members Monday.
In 2006, 7,500 schoolchildren visited the museum, compared with 12,000 a decade earlier. According to IRS documents, total attendance in 2006 was 47,000, but Lincoln spokeswoman Annette Moser said attendance in recent years averaged about 40,000 annually
Dan O'Connell, president and CEO of Fort Wayne/Allen County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said attendance in 2007 rose to about 60,000.
Fort Wayne Community Schools spokeswoman Krista Stockman said over the years, the schools have taken fewer field trips because state standards for academics have risen, but the Lincoln trip hasn't been dropped off the list.
East Allen County Schools said no changes have been made to the Lincoln field trip, especially since receiving a grant five years ago.
EACS Superintendent Kay Novotny said it's a regular fifth-grade trip each year.
The museum has about 20 full-time, part-time and contract employees. All but perhaps one or two are expected to end employment by June 30, Brown said, noting a couple of people will be needed to maintain the archived print documents at the current site.
Another Friends of the Lincoln Museum board member, Liz Schatzlein, is also dismayed at the decision. The timing, she said, is terrible in light of next year being the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth.
“The whole country is going to celebrate Lincoln,” she said, “and we're going to wave as the moving van goes.”
Metro reporters Ashley Smith and Bob Caylor contributed to this story.