City questions management of Riley collection

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The Riley Boyhood Museum, next to the Hoosier Poet’s childhood home on Main Street in Greenfield, is the repository for the collection of Riley-era artifacts.

Tom Russo | Daily Reporter

GREENFIELD – The city government and one of the community’s oldest nonprofit organizations are locked in a dispute over artifacts related to its most famous citizen, James Whitcomb Riley.

At issue is a vast collection of historical items related to Riley and his contemporaries. The items are in the possession of the Riley Old Home Society, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the Hoosier poet’s legacy that has existed in some form since the 1930s.

While the nonprofit controls the collection, Greenfield’s parks department owns and operates the James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home and Museum, where the artifacts are stored

City officials say they want to work together to help preserve the items, educate people about Riley’s legacy, and support one of Greenfield’s biggest tourist attractions. But they claim the Old Home Society won’t let them handle or even see the historical artifacts.

The conflict has escalated to the point that the Old Home Society has placed a padlock on the door of its storage space and threatened to remove items on display. And on Wednesday, Jan. 5, the city served the society with notice that they are expected to vacate the building within six months. In the meantime, they’ll only be able to access it by giving prior notice to the parks superintendent, and they have been told not to remove artifacts unless they can document their ownership.

In an agreement with the city, the Old Home Society was given the ability to lease the second floor of the Riley Museum for $1 per year in order to store its collections.

City attorney Gregg Morelock and parks superintendent Ellen Kuker, who oversees the Riley Home and its museum next door, said all the city wants is to know what items are included in the Old Home Society’s collection so that they can be potentially used in programming and display. But, they say, the organization won’t give them that.

“It does no good for all that stuff just to sit upstairs and gather dust when it could be used,” Morelock said.

According to meeting minutes and other documents provided by the city, the Old Home Society came into conflict with the city over how much access the Riley Home coordinator, Stacey Poe, should have to the society’s collection. Poe is an employee of the parks department who became a full-time employee in 2020. Morelock said the city has been working on finding a resolution to the issue for more than two years.

Morelock said when trouble started to arise between the city and the Old Home Society board, the city asked for the creation of a subcommittee consisting of two members appointed by each entity to resolve disputes. He said that committee was created, but the solutions it came up with were vetoed by the chair of the Old Home Society’s collections committee. The two parties asked an official from the Indiana Historical Society to help mediate the dispute, but that didn’t lead to a resolution.

“We were left with no way to, first, identify what artifacts may be available for any given exhibit or display, and secondly, to be able to have access to those,” Morelock said.

Morelock added that the Old Home Society had also offered to provide a photographic inventory of the items, but had ultimately only shared photographs of what was already on display at the museum.

The ownership of the artifacts is also in dispute. According to the city’s agreement with the Old Home Society, the city owns and maintains the building while the nonprofit owns and maintains the collection.

Morelock said that when the agreement was created, the Old Home Society represented that they had documentation of their ownership of the artifacts in their collection, and the city accepted that.

However, the society later published a newspaper ad listing artifacts that it could not verify the ownership of. The ad asked people to come forward if they believed they owned any of them. Published in the Daily Reporter in March 2021, the ad lists dozens of items and categories of items, everything from furniture and rugs to books, lithographs and even a sword.

Morelock said the city did respond to this request to claim ownership of items. He said the city insures both the home and museum and their contents, and wouldn’t be able to insure those items if they didn’t have an ownership interest in them.

“They literally, and I think they would acknowledge, they literally have hundreds if not thousands of artifacts that they have no idea what those collections consist of,” Morelock said. “And I’m not blaming them for that; this is a volunteer organization… They certainly haven’t had the time to catalogue those and inventory those.”

Morelock said he and other city officials have been allowed to see some of the artifacts on only one occasion.

The Old Home Society purchased software called Past Perfect, which is used for taking inventory of historical artifacts. On its website, the organization says the system “will enable us to accurately and quickly locate artifacts, whether on display or in storage.”

Morelock said the inventory is incomplete and doesn’t give the city all the information it needs.

Old Home Society president David Crider said the organization is not commenting on the conflict at this time and is planning to hire an attorney. He said the society owns all the artifacts in its collection.

The city provided the Daily Reporter with the minutes of a society board meeting from December 2020. In the minutes, board members said they do not believe the museum coordinator needs or should have full access to artifacts and that as a volunteer organization, they are not always able to provide information as soon as it’s requested. They also said they have restricted access to their space because of its small size.

Poe, the museum coordinator, declined to comment.

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