Defunct 1: The Museum of American Political Life

Defunct 1: All Local Politics Museums is Closed
West Hartford

RIP, Summer of 2004

defunct2a.jpgOne strange phenomenom about the list of Defunct Museums is the fact that three of them would have been three of the closest museums to my house. One could almost triangulate their locations to find my backyard. One of them was at the University of Hartford (which, strangely, is actually in West Hartford. Details, details.) So I figured I’d “visit” and express my disappointment at it’s closure. (I thought the other picture of the cold, stark sculpture nearby captured my somber mood pretty well.)

The Museum of American Political Life was apparently quite an impressive museum right here in my backyard. “Illustrating the pageant, drama and defunct2b.jpgexcitement of presidential politics, the museum houses one of the most extraordinary collections of rare and significant political memorabilia in the nation, second only to the Smithsonian.” This is not just an empty political platitude; researching the Internet backs up this contention.

Weirdly, after deciding I would attempt to chronicle these “dead” museums just the other day, I found an article from “The Hartford Courant” about the museum just published yesterday. I’m telling you, CTMQ is influencing far more people than we know. So thank you, Kathleen Megan, for helping out my efforts. Perhaps I’ll grant you an interview someday. Since the Courant archives/deletes articles in what seems like a week, your fine article will live here indefinitely.

And there’s apparently hope! We may yet see this museum rise from the ashes someday – so when the article below says, “in the years before the Museum of American Political Life closed, it had few visitors,” let’s make sure that doesn’t happen ever again.

Procession of the Wide-Awake Club down Main Street, Hartford, July 26, 1860. Photo: The Museum of American Political Life, University of Hartford

Procession of the Wide-Awake Club down Main Street, Hartford, July 26, 1860.
Photo: The Museum of American Political Life, University of Hartford


U Of H Memorabilia Collection In Storage

By Kathleen Megan
Courant Staff Writer
February 15, 2008

What has been called one of the finest collections of American political memorabilia in the country – including lots of campaign buttons – is in the Hartford area but unfortunately has not been available for viewing for almost four years.

The University of Hartford’s Museum of American Political Life was closed in the summer of 2004 to free up space for the expansion of the university’s architecture program. Randi Ashton-Pritting, director of the university’s libraries, said that some 75,000 items are now in an environmentally controlled storage facility in Bloomfield.

one.jpg“It’s truly secure,” said Ashton-Pritting. “It’s got humidity control, multiple locks. … It takes two different people with two different keys to get in.” She said the university has appointed a committee to study whether to give it to another museum or find space on campus.

She said the collection, which contains many items donated by the late J. Doyle DeWitt, a president of Travelers, contains items dating to George Washington. The collection includes a tankard mug from that era, the first purple heart ever given out and a pin that Washington wore at his inauguration – a gift from his wife, Martha.

There are also walking sticks, banners, films, coins, campaign giveaways, textiles, a concrete head of Abraham Lincoln and other items. “It’s got some sweet things,” said Ashton-Pritting.

larry_bird_biography.jpgLarry Bird, curator of the political campaign collection at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, said the University of Hartford collection is “one of the two top national collections of political Americana” – the other being the Smithsonian’s. He said that during the 1960s, DeWitt went “head to head” at auctions with the lawyer who was assembling the collection that is now in the Smithsonian.

Ashton-Pritting said that unfortunately, in the years before the Museum of American Political Life closed, it had few visitors. “The people who knew and loved the museum were not coming in droves; school kids weren’t coming; the university [community] wasn’t coming. It was hard to justify.”


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  1. Jan Baker says

    I was all set to take my grandchildren to the Political museum on election day. When I looked it up, I found your site. I had been there several times in the past and my own children enjoyed it too. It was a great collection. How does it serve anyone boxed up and put away to deteriorate? If they aren’t going to use it, perhaps they should donate it to someone who would. I bet the CT hitorical society would love to have the collection. I think that the reason few people came to it was that few people knew about it. Thanks for your museum work. We are a big museum family and I have been to many of these, but I see I have a few more to explore. I often go with my grandchildren and sometimes we even dress in our period clothing to do a little time travel. Any museums on the Civil War? That’s our period right now. Jan

  2. Gordon says

    Oh. This is unfortunate. I visited the museum with my wife about 20 years ago. Being an alumnus of the U of Hartford, I was quite proud of the museum being on the U of H campus.

    Today, while cleaning out some old stuff, I came across some items from when I was a canvasser with the John Anderson campaign back in 1980. My first thought was to donate them to the museum for their collection. But now I’m having 2nd thoughts.

  3. Becky Lynch says

    As a journalist with U of H’s Informer student newspaper in 1991-1992′, I was assigned to cover a temporary exhibit at the museum. I remember not having a clue about this gem on the campus. I had an appointment with the curator who was going to show me the exhibit AND bring me “backstage” to show me some of their reserves. I dragged my feet, mumbling under my breath, all the way over there that afternoon. WHAT AN IDIOT I WAS!

    This was, by FAR, the most fantastic place I ever stepped foot in. From the minute walked in, I was captivated. The museum was filled with incredible political memorabilia, historical movies, and one-of-a-kind exhibits. But backstage I saw Revolutionary War scrolls, torches held during those volatile colonial years, Faberge eggs of political scenes, and doll-like replicas of all of the First a Lady’s’ Innuagural gowns. I stood with gaped mouth at the incredible items.

    I am sad this is gone. What a shameful disgrace. As alum, we should be doing everything we can to bring these items out of hiding and back into the light. Otherwise, we fail to recognize our past as Americans.

  4. says

    I was researching a site for a photo shoot for my photography meetup group.
    I remember seeing the collection when it first opened in the 60’s when I was in high school.
    I recall how impressive a collection it was and I wanted to go again with a group of photographers because there were so many interesting artifact going back to George Washington.
    It’s a shame that it is locked away.
    There has to be a better solution so the entire country and visitors the world over to see a first rate exhibit.

    If the Connecticut Historical Museum isn’t interested in showing a world-class collection of a local resident, J. Doyle DeWitt, the president of Traveler insurance, then either the Smithsonian or another first rate museum would love to have it and have it locked away for years.

    When I see that it could not draw the crowds, or school classes then someone dropped the ball.
    This should be a destination exhibit open to the public and scholars doing research. University is over it’s head when it comes to taking this valuable resource and letting the world know that it’s here.
    The campus itself probably doesn’t want to spend the funds to house the exhibit and make it accessible to all. Parking has to be free and available.
    University of Hartford doesn’t have a clue what to do with it. They don’t seem to understand what PR is or how to use it.

    Wouldn’t the University of Connecticut do something more with the collection if the museums aren’t interested? They have been doing a lot of building up in Storrs and I’m sure they know what to do with it and how to feature it and draw people to see it. Look what UConn did with their world class basketball teams and their own museum on campus.

    I just don’t understand why this is locked away in a dark warehouse and not a feature, unique, and very relevant collection. UofHartford, is still a 2nd tier school.

    Who will step up and get this off the ground?

    It has to be a priority to get this out to the public especially with interest this year in the election. It’s a perfect springboard and what are they doing? Nothing!

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