Dispute troubles Greenfield museum honoring Indiana poet James Whitcomb Riley

The future of a museum in Greenfield dedicated to the life of famed Indiana poet James Whitcomb Riley is troubled by a dispute over control of its artifacts collection.

Greenfield city officials argue that a local not-for-profit group can’t provide proof of ownership for much of the collection of writings, furniture, paintings and other items stored at the James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home and Museum.

The city has owned the home where Riley grew up since the 1930s, while the Riley Old Home Society has long maintained the artifacts related to Riley, who reached national fame in the late 1800s with poems such as “When the Frost Is on the Punkin” and “Little Orphant Annie.”

The James Whitcomb Riley Boyhood Home and Museum at 250 W. Main St. in Greenfield (Google Maps photo)

The museum hosted 2,028 visitors in 2019, the year before the pandemic, according to IBJ research. It charges a $4 admission fee.

An Indianapolis home where Riley lived later in life has also been preserved as a museum honoring the poet, but it is owned and operated separately from the childhood home in Hancock County.

Greenfield officials notified the Old Home Society in early January that it was terminating the organization’s lease for the second floor of the Riley Museum, which it had been renting for $1 per year, the (Greenfield) Daily Reporter reported.

City attorney Gregg Morelock said the group wouldn’t be allowed to remove artifacts unless it could show it owned them. Morelock said many of the items simply were dropped off over the years at the museum, often by people who didn’t understand that the museum and the society that controlled the collection were legally distinct entities.

Morelock said officials in the city about 20 miles east of Indianapolis sought more access to the collection as it looked to put more emphasis on the Riley home and museum.

“Unfortunately, we’ve been met at every stopping point with a roadblock by the society,” Morelock said.

The Riley Old Home Society said it its work acquiring Riley artifacts is well documented.

Society board member Terry Sargent told WXIN-TV Channel 59 that the city’s lease cancellation might force the group to place the artifacts in storage and with museums in Indianapolis.

The future of the Greenfield museum could be in question if the Riley collection is split up or completely moved out by the society.

“Once it ceases to be a museum, the home reverts back to the Riley heirs and then they are going to take care of it,” Sargent said. “The way they are going it might. I don’t know. I can’t say that for sure.”•

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