The Museum of Democracy is a travelling collection that is hosted at permanent museums around the country. The Collection – started by the Wright Family – consists of over a million-plus objects, amassed over four decades. It is unsurpassed in quality and quantity, representing every president from Washington to Trump and covering all the major presidential campaigns.
By Kaleigh Blessard | Photos Courtesy of Mackenzie Wright
If we do not learn our history, we are doomed to repeat it. It’s a phrase we’ve all heard, yet many of us are still reluctant to look back on how far we have come as a nation. That is why museums are so important. The Museum of Democracy, a travelling collection, is one that is dedicated to focusing a lens on one of the most vital parts of our nation, past and present: politics, and, more specifically, the election of one of the world’s most powerful positions—the President of the United States. Mackenzie Wright, cofounder of the Museum, took some time to tell us more about her family’s collection.
What was the first piece in the collection? How did all of this start? My father, Jordan M. Wright, began this collection at the age 11. On his way home from school, he came across Robert Kennedy’s Senatorial Campaign headquarters in NYC and scooped up a campaign button. That ignited a life-long passion to amass the world’s largest collection of American historical art and memorabilia. As the collection grew, its uniqueness and importance became increasingly clear to my family. We incorporated the Museum of Democracy as a notfor-profit to preserve and protect the collection and to develop traveling exhibitions for the public. After my father unexpectedly passed away, my brother Austin and I decided to spearhead the project along with our Board of Directors. Our mission became crystal clear. The Museum of Democracy is dedicated to preserving and showcasing American historical art, artifacts, and memorabilia that tells the story of our nation’s greatest accomplishment: our democratic system.
What is your role in the museum, and what do you like most about it? I am a Co-Founder and Project Manager for the Museum of Democracy. I was fortunate to grow up in politics; my mother worked in the United States Senate and my father was clearly infatuated with politics. The two bonded over their passion for our nation’s great democracy. They inspired my brother and me to study and participate in campaigns and elections that affect our world and our place in it. I now believe my greatest calling is to pass this knowledge along. My greatest joy is to educate, inspire, and promote American history, politics, and culture through art, artifacts, and memorabilia in our digital age.
What is your personal favorite exhibition? My favorite exhibit thus far, ‘Path to The Presidency,’ opened on June 2, 2017 at the Bridgehampton Museum in Long Island, NY. The exhibition is on display until December 31, 2017. The collection items date back to 1789, during some of the first political campaigns. Brass and copper buttons commemorate President Washington’s inauguration, and actually inspired modern campaign buttons. The exhibition historically highlights candidates and their campaigns throughout all of our elections. Time often obscures the passionate ideals of candidates and polarizing election issues, but the collection preserves the mood of the times.
Do you have a favorite exhibit or item? I have a few…the political paper dresses are a personal favorite. The line-up includes Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, Robert Kennedy, and Nelson Rockefeller paper dresses. Also, the Alfred M. Landon paper cape and a JFK paper/cloth usher vest. What makes these so special, aside from having the likes of Bobby Kennedy on a paper mini dress, is that the highly fashionable items were also highly combustible! “This material is fire resistant unless washed or dry cleaned, and then becomes dangerously flammable when dry,” the label explains. Smoking was equally as fashionable in the 60’s and 70’s, which made these dresses quite difficult to preserve!
What is your favorite thing about studying history and politics? Why do you think it is important? The most fascinating part for me is seeing how much has changed and yet it is exactly the same. For instance, whether it is controversy surrounding Black Lives Matter or the initial opposition to the Civil Rights movement, history repeats itself. Progress in a society is often illustrated by demonstrations and protests, which are as American as apple pie. From Antifa to the Far Right, American protests are highly visual and artistically rich in material culture.
The 2016 presidential election and ensuing political environment is arguably the most drastic in history. The subject of how and why the President of the United States is elected was never more vigorously debated. It is crucial to connect with children and young adults [over] our shared history. Teens and college students pursuing American historical culture as they understand it are the future of our nation. Many adults will relive the shifts of political, cultural, and artistic transformations they endured in America. Ultimately, all citizens of the United States of America should have exposure to and an interest in our shared history and how it relates to issues of today. On a global scale, we believe the collection will provide foreigners with valuable insight into American history and culture from an uncompromised viewpoint.
What is the strangest artifact in the collection? The collection is FULL of strange artifacts! The objects expose candidates’ eccentricities, insecurities, cash flow, dark secrets, troublesome platforms, and anything else you care to seek out! In 1837, Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan ran against William McKinley. Bryan became a sitting duck for sarcasm, including coffins that read “this man was talked to death” because of his rather lengthy speeches. It’s hard to image a candidate today producing coffins for any reason. A button from the 1960’s that reads “Prostitutes… Vote for Nixon or Kennedy. We don’t care who gets in!” seems more outlandish and vulgar than anything we saw in our most recent election. Cigarettes were distributed at the 1988 political conventions. Smoking may not have been quite as taboo as today, but still surprising. Another strange object is a Nixon-bashing toilet seat.
Is the collection still actively growing? Where are items kept when they are not on display? The collection is actively growing, and with the shift to social media, we continue to seek material culture such as political folk art objects and handmade campaign memorabilia for exhibits. Museums only display a portion of their permanent collection. Our collection is kept in storage in New York and curated for events, interviews, and exhibitions. SVM