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US museum returns historic wig to UK

It is a very small part of the museum’s collection – but it is significant as an example of their thinking process that a US museum has decided to return an item from their collection to an institution in the UK. Not only did they decide to return it, but this decision was made without being forced through by any form of request from the other parties involved. They refer to it as a change in the way museums operate – it will be interesting to see if other institutions apply this same reasoning to their collections in future.

News Gazette (Champaign-Urbana, Illinois) [1]

Hairpiece in county museum being returned to England
By Paul Wood
Friday, February 1, 2008 2:12 PM CDT

Remember good ol’ Abe Lincoln, trying cases in Urbana and Danville in that big white horsehair wig of his? Of course you don’t. It’s those Brits who have historically worn wigs in English courts. Lincoln wouldn’t have been caught dead in one, even though he was once a member of the Whig Party.

So Champaign County’s Early American Museum, located in Mahomet, doffed the wig it had displayed over the course of 40 years, once owned by a man named Beard, and sent it packing back across the pond.

The wig in question once belonged to Sir Louis Beard, town clerk of Blackburn, England, from 1903 to 1930. And now it’s in the Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, a regional institution that also boasts an Egyptian mummy.

Early American Museum Curator Barbara Oehlschlaeger-Garvey says the wig had been in the museum’s collection since its founding in 1968. The initial collection came from the estate of William Redhed, who donated about a thousand items, mostly Americana.

The Redheds, English immigrants, made their money selling lumber to the new towns of Champaign County, and opened the first grocery in Tolono.

Redhed’s original idea was for the University of Illinois to create a national agricultural museum, Oehlschlaeger-Garvey said, but it was the Early American Museum that ended up taking off.

The provenance of the wig is somewhat murky, the curator said.

Beard married an American in 1890, and the wig may have found its way here when he died in 1933. Redhed was an extensive collector, particularly in the Northeast, and the wig probably has no other connection to Central Illinois, she said.

But a recent trend has been for museums to return items to their original nations. Greece is restoring the Parthenon atop the Acropolis, for instance, and is seeking a return of the marble statues taken to the British Museum.

The most controversial Central Illinois item is the leg of a certain Mexican general, the conqueror of the Alamo.

Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna lost his leg in the so-called French Pastry War, fought between France and Mexico in 1838. In 1847, facing the United States at the Battle of Cerro Gordo in Mexico, he lingered over a roast chicken.

Illinoisans charged the camp, ate the general’s chicken and carried off his cork leg. They memorialized the victory by naming a Piatt County town after the battle.

The leg has been stored at Camp Lincoln’s Illinois State Military Museum in Springfield, but in recent years the Mexican government has requested its return.

Returning Beard’s wig was entirely voluntary on the part of the Early American Museum.

“About three years ago, as part of a trend in the museum world , we developed a collecting plan to be sure we’re wisely using our resources and make sure we’re not just collecting anything,” Oehlschlaeger-Garvey said.

The museum has divested itself of a few objects – not many, the curator emphasized.

“A barrister’s wig is not part of our mission, to interpret Champaign County or East Central Illinois,” she said. “Our lawyers were like Abraham Lincoln,” not the hoity-toity British barristers who still wear wigs.

In any case, she said, it’s not actually a barrister’s wig as some had previously thought.

The tin case it came in was labeled Louis Beard, town clerk of Blackburn. Blackburn is in Lancashire, Beatles fans will recall. Oehlschlaeger-Garvey did some research with the help of Google and came up with the Web site of the Blackburn museum.

The decision to return the wig passed through an advisory committee, then the Champaign County Forest Preserve Board.

Oehlschlaeger-Garvey then sent an e-mail to the English museum.

They wrote back with a photograph. When they compared the photos of Louis Beard, it was clearly the same wig. The Blackburn museum paid to have it sent 4,000 miles to them.