All Local Politics Museums is Closed
The Museum of American Political Life, West Hartford
RIP, Summer of 2004
2019 Update: No, this wasn’t the 431st museum I visited. It was somewhere around the 75th. But I decided to roll these post-closure “visits” into my general Museum Visits list so I have one less list to worry about. I figure with the defunct visits, it doesn’t really matter whether I visited in 2009 or 2019, y’know?
One strange phenomenon about the list of museums that have closed in the 21st century 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.)
The Museum of American Political Life was apparently quite an impressive museum when it was operational. “Illustrating the pageantry, drama and excitement 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 closed 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.
U Of H Memorabilia Collection In Storage
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.
“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, 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.”
I used to think there was hope that we’d see this place open again someday. It closed in 2004 and the above article is from 2008 and… there was another Courant article in 2016 that more or less finalized the museum’s demise. The University just didn’t want to deal with it anymore. Which I happen to think is a bit ridiculous, as the collection was worth over $4 million… and as a private university, shouldn’t they want to hang on to it?
I guess not…
Hartford Is Losing A Remarkable Piece Of History
By Edmund H. Mahoney
APR 17, 2016
A remarkable collection of American political artifacts — assembled by one of Hartford’s insurance titans and once envisioned as a vehicle for invigorating the city — appears headed out of town and into oblivion, probably broken up and sold to private collectors.
The University of Hartford, which is selling the collection, received it as a gift half a century ago from J. Doyle DeWitt, then chairman and CEO of The Travelers Insurance Cos. DeWitt spent his life scouring backwater America, assembling as many as 70,000 artifacts of the national political culture in a collection that rivals that of the Smithsonian Institution.
Dewitt found trousers worn by a sailor who rowed Gen. George Washington away from Long Island and the British. There is a whale oil torch carried by the Wide Awakes, the paramilitary, political, marching club in Hartford that spread across America and contributed mightily to Abraham Lincoln’s election. In a more recent acquisition, Richard M. Nixon delivers his “Checkers speech” on a recording made a century later.
There are textiles, prints, pottery, glassware, mugs, medals, buttons, banners, ribbons and posters in a collection of presidential memorabilia so expansive it has never been entirely cataloged.
From 1989 to 2003, the University displayed it to the public in an on-campus museum built in part with a government grant. Now, more than a decade later, the collection is packed away in a warehouse, the campus museum has been converted to another use and, barring an 11th-hour reprieve, DeWitt’s obsession is headed to auction.
John Carson, vice president for university relations, said the administration has concluded that it cannot afford to maintain or display what is known to historians as the J. Doyle DeWitt Collection. And after years of looking, Carson said, the university has been unable to find a museum or other academic institution willing to buy it on the university’s terms — a purchase of the collection in its entirety.
A local collector said the university would like to get about $4.5 million for the collection. Carson said the school has not arrived at a value.
“This started as a discussion here at the university in 2003 and has been going on for a long time,” Carson said. “Late in 2014, after all sorts of meetings and discussions and other activities, we were given the go-ahead [by the university administration] to solicit interest of auction houses that could possibly work with us to dispose of the collection.”
The school has narrowed its list of auctioneers to two and continues to move toward the award of a contract.
Historians, museum administrators and civic boosters are following the process with dismay. They said auctioneers bump up their profit by selling off collections in pieces. The result, they fear, could be the disappearance into private hands of an extraordinary collection of Americana that, in public hands, could form the centerpiece of a local, cultural attraction.
Also disconcerting, they said, is the sale of donated collections, even those held together by institutions with meager budgets.
“Museums around the country are struggling just to get by,” said Walter W. Woodward, state historian and professor of history at the University of Connecticut. “And if it were acceptable to sell collections to pay operating expenses, a lot of really priceless stuff would move into the private sector and never be seen again. And it sounds like that is what the University of Hartford is doing.
William Hosley, a cultural resource consultant and former curator at the Wadsworth Atheneum, predicted the university will be disappointed.
“A collection like that, if you sell it, what you get is about maybe half or a third of what it would cost if you were trying to build it,” Hosley said. “The real value of it is the creative intensity and focus of the guy who put it together. Once it gets liquidated, all the parts get dispersed to the four winds.”
Carson said that, for more than a decade, the university has studied the collection’s future in consultation with experts from institutions such as the Smithsonian and universities, museums and historical societies across the Northeast. He said there is consensus that the school, without a professional curatorial staff and with a paltry budget, cannot care for and display the collection. The school said it budgeted $25,000 a year for the care and display of the collection in the 1990s.
One of those experts, Penn State University history Professor Mark Neeley Jr., wrote 15 years ago: that the University of Hartford’s display of the collection during the 1990s demonstrated “that it cannot hope by itself to bring this nationally significant collection the exhibition, curatorial, conservation, and public outreach expertise that is available on a large and professional staff.”
Because DeWitt, a founding regent of the university, donated his collection without restriction, Carson said the school is obligated to sell it, rather than pass it on as a gift to a public institution.
“We received it for free, but it became an asset of the university at that time,” he said. “And all assets — whether it’s a building or a collection or a painting — are assets. And the fiduciary responsibility of any institution, private or public, is to manage its assets in the best interest of the institution. That’s what we are trying to do.”
A substantial number of organizations passed on opportunities to buy the collection because they would not or could not pay, or didn’t want the whole thing.
Those in Connecticut said they were interested in taking only parts of the collection — as a gift. Among them: the Old State House, Trinity College’s Watkinson Library, the University of Connecticut’s Dodd Research Center, the Connecticut State Library and Museum of Connecticut History, the Connecticut Humanities Council, and the Connecticut Historical Society.
“We were not interested in the entire collection,” said State Librarian Kendall F. Wiggin. “Some of it we had. Some of it we didn’t. But it is a very large collection and it goes well beyond our collecting area. And we had no money with which to purchase, so there was no talk of actual amounts of money.”
“We expressed our interest in the Connecticut material. Personally, I think it would have been nice if we could have kept at least the Connecticut-related things somewhere in the state. But that’s not my call. They own it and they can dispose of it as they want. It will be interesting to see what does happen to it at auction.”
Among the institutions outside Connecticut that passed are the National Archives, Library of Congress, the Smithsonian and the National Constitution Center. The Library of Congress was the only national institution to express interest in the collection. But it balked when invited to make an offer, the University of Hartford said.
DeWitt is said to have become an inveterate collector early in life. He was a veteran of World War I when The Travelers Insurance Cos. hired him in Des Moines in 1925 as a claims investigator. He was in Hartford two years later. He was running all Travelers’ claims departments by 1943. He was a vice president in 1950, president in 1952 and chairman and CEO in 1964.
DeWitt often found himself bidding for presidential artifacts against the Smithsonian, which was assembling the national collection. A Hartford collector who has long admired DeWitt’s work said that, as DeWitt shot up through the managerial ranks at The Travelers, he was able to put the insurer’s far flung resources to work on his collection.
In the end, the Smithsonian collection surpassed that of DeWitt, but even the national museum recognizes the extraordinary cultural value of the political artifacts he assembled.
“The DeWitt is one of the major national political history collections in the country, in both its scope and quality of material,” said Harry Rubenstein, chairman of the Smithsonian’s division of political history at the National Museum of American History. “There are many unique objects, but especially it is in its 19th century holdings that make the DeWitt Collection a valued resource for scholars and the public interested in American political life and culture.”
If there is any good news about Connecticut’s potential loss of the collection, it may be that few will notice.
DeWitt stored his collection at his home and in a local warehouse. During presidential election years, he displayed it to the public in a building The Travelers owned on Prospect Street, near the Hartford Club. He donated it to the University of Hartford over a dozen years beginning in 1959.
The University put the collection on display in an on-campus museum in 1989. But in 2003, the university packed up the DeWitt collection and put it in storage to make its museum space available for a brief, traveling, National Archives exhibition of historic American documents.
The DeWitt collection has been in storage since.
I was going to excerpt that article, but decided against doing so. There are many hundreds of museums in Connecticut and one less isn’t going to be noticed by anyone. The thing that sticks out to me above is the bit about how it’s a “good” thing that no one would notice the disappearance of the collection. This is, of course, quite true. And quite sad.
Despite the fact that I write and maintain this museum-centric website, I’m not one to get too upset about these things. The artifacts still exist – somewhere – and that’s fine. I’m bummed it was in storage when I started CTMQ in 2006, as this seemed like a really cool place. Oh well.