SPRINGFIELD - Governor Rod R. Blagojevich today thanked Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum Director Richard Norton Smith for leading the world-class complex through its inaugural year. Smith today announced his resignation to accept an academic opportunity at George Mason University in Virginia. Smith joined the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum in November of 2003. Illinois State Historian, Tom Schwartz, will serve as interim director, as a nationwide search begins for a permanent director.
“More than two years ago, I asked Richard Norton Smith to come to Springfield and help us introduce Illinois’ favorite son to the world. That’s exactly what he did. He led the opening of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum that tells the Lincoln story like its never been told before,” said Gov. Blagojevich. “Richard poured his heart, energy and creativity into the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum complex and in a very real sense, he made it what it is today. I thank him for his service and wish him all the best as he takes on new challenges.”
“It hardly seems possible that nearly three years have passed since the day in May, 2003 when we met for the first time, and you shared with me your vision for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum,” Richard Norton Smith wrote in a letter to Governor Blagojevich. “Notwithstanding the project’s troubled history, you expressed a strong personal commitment to doing whatever was necessary to realize its possibilities. You have more than fulfilled that promise, for which I am deeply grateful. My appreciation extends to members of the legislature, to public officials, both here in Springfield and in Washington, and to the countless citizens throughout Illinois who have provided their own encouragement and support. A great deal of work, some of it corrective, more of it creative, has necessarily been telescoped into these crowded years. As it happens, the ALPLM is the sixth institution – the last two of them start-ups - for which I have been responsible since 1987. Having done what I was asked to do in 2003, I feel the time has come to do other things.”
"When Richard became director, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum was already signed, sealed and was being delivered," said Julie Cellini, board chairman of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. "But it took Richard's unique combination of scholarship and media savvy to articulate the museum's bold concept of telling a 19th century story with 21st century technology. No one can match his communication skills or his creativity. I predict students will line up to take his courses at George Mason University, and his Nelson Rockefeller book will be a best seller."
When Smith began as the first Executive Director of the ALPLM in the Fall of 2003, the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library was nearing completion and the Museum was still being constructed.
In October of 2004, the Governor and Smith opened the Presidential Library, which is now home to the former Illinois State Historical Library, which since 1889 has been the institution for research about all aspects of Illinois history. The Library’s 47,000-item Abraham Lincoln collection is the largest assemblage of pre-presidential Lincoln material in the world and is used for virtually every publication, broadcast program or film about Lincoln or the Civil War. The new building replaces the one constructed underneath the Old State Capitol State Historic Site in 1968.
Contained within the Library is a treasure trove of 12 million documents and artifacts relating to all eras of Illinois history. These include more than 10.5 million manuscripts, 175,000 books, 90,000 reels of Illinois newspapers on microfilm, 6,000 maps and broadsides, and 200,000 prints and photographs.
The Library’s Lincoln Collection features 1,500 original manuscripts written by Abraham Lincoln; 400 of the 600 letters written by Mary Todd Lincoln that are known to exist; 1,200 prints and photographs, including the only photo showing Lincoln lying in state; more than 200 paintings and sculptures, including six original life portraits of President and Mrs. Lincoln; 12,000 books and pamphlets; more than 230 personal and family items; 800 broadsides, including invitations to Lincoln’s first and second inaugural balls; and political campaign material, including pieces of rail allegedly split by Lincoln and sold to raise money for the 1860 presidential campaign.
The crowning achievement during Smith’s leadership at the ALPLM was opening the Presidential Museum with Governor Blagojevich and President George W. Bush in April of 2005. Held in Union Square Park across from the Museum, the Museum’s dedication concluded several years of planning and hard work, bringing the public life and private life of Abraham Lincoln to the forefront.
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum features nearly 40,000 square feet of exhibits, special effects theatres and displays of original artifacts will plunge visitors into Lincoln’s life and times. Hundreds of thousands of visitors each year will be immersed in the Lincoln story through two state-of-the-art exhibit “journeys” depicting Lincoln’s early years, home life, legal and political careers, and presidency. The Museum’s Treasures Gallery showcases select original items from the state’s Lincoln collection, such as the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s presidential briefcase. The Union Theatre presents “Lincoln’s Eyes,” a 17-minute show that uses special effects and three screens to surround the audience with the tragedies and triumphs of Lincoln’s life. The “Ghosts of the Library” theatre amazes audiences as live actors interact with ghosts onstage to make yesterday and today come to life.
The Museum also features a children’s area, restaurant, gift shop, a 4,500 square foot plaza, sure to be one of the most popular gathering places in Illinois, and a parking garage for visitors. The complex will include a welcome center in the restored 1890 Union Station, currently under construction.
Other accomplishments during Smith’s tenure at the ALPLM include:
- Fully staffed the ALPLM, hiring over one hundred employees; saving the state over $1 million by privatizing the Museum Store, food services and security.
- Museum on course to attract 600,000 visitors in the first year of operation; doubling pre-opening forecast.
- Opened the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in October 2004; increased staffing 50%; established new evening and weekend hours for researchers; launched efforts to preserve historically significant film holdings; secured over $1 million in manuscript and artifact donations to Library.
- Staffed the ALPL Foundation; strengthened Foundation with new board members and approximately $8 million in new gifts and pledges; created nationwide friends program.
- Tripled funding of The Papers of Abraham Lincoln, designed to place online every document that ever crossed Lincoln’s desk.
- Organized at the ALPLM variety of community events, including Holiday Open House, Black History Month, Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, and other observances.
- With Foundation support, unveiled new programs, including: Evenings to Remember,
Inaugural Governor’s Conference, “Adlai Stevenson of Illinois,” November 2005,
Jim Edgar Lecture Series, Pulitzer-prize winning historian David McCullough
- Helped raise $50,000 for Hurricane Katrina victims.
- Created three blockbuster temporary exhibits at the Museum, Blood on the Moon; Christmas at the White House; and Mrs. President: From Martha to Laura (opening this May).
- Launched Lincoln Bicentenary planning; developing a strategic plan for 2006-2015, and identifying candidates for a statewide commission.
Between 1987 and 2001, Smith served as Director of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa; the Dwight D. Eisenhower Center in Abilene, Kansas; the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and the Reagan Center for Public Affairs in Simi Valley, California; the Gerald R. Ford Museum and Library in Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor, Michigan respectively.
In December of 2001, Smith became director of the new Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. There he supervised construction of the Institute’s $11.3 million permanent home and launched many successful, high-profile programs. While in Lawrence, Mr. Smith was recruited by Gov. Blagojevich to take the helm of the ALPLM.
Smith will leave his current position at the end of March to become a Scholar in Residence at George Mason University in Arlington and Fairfax, Virginia. In addition, Allen Weinstein, the Archivist of the United States, has asked Smith to undertake a comprehensive review to assess and strengthen the nation’s presidential library system. Smith also plans to complete his biography of Nelson A. Rockefeller, already some six years in the making. The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation has invited Smith to become a consultant and resource, particularly as it relates to the forthcoming Lincoln Bicentenary celebration.