The Buffalo Presidential Center was founded ten years ago, but it was not until the acquisition of a huge collection of memorabilia that the need for a physical space became a quest. According to President Linda Brigance, it was the personal collection of Elwin “Rich” Richardson that became the Center’s Holy Grail of exhibit resources.
“His collection could keep the museum going forever,” declared Brigance. “The bulk of our collection was bequeathed to us by Richardson. When he was in possession of the presidential artifacts (pertaining to Buffalo), it took over his house and his workshop. Now, thanks to our new physical space at the Buffalo & Erie County Central Library, we will have room to show this collection permanently, along with the rest of the things that we have amassed from other collectors and donations.”
The new space at the Library will help to tell the tales of presidential visits to Buffalo, of which there have been around 150, by 36 presidents. Those visits include times when the presidential hopefuls were campaigning, during their presidencies, and even after they died. “Lincoln came through Buffalo 4 times,” stated Brigance. “Once to Buffalo when he was campaigning in 1848, then to Niagara Falls while campaigning in 1857, to Buffalo during his inaugural train in 1861, and finally during his funeral train in 1865. Buffalo had two huge funeral services for him – once before the city knew that a funeral train would be rolling through, and once when the train actually came through.”
Brigance told me that it is of utmost importance to have a physical space for a number of reasons, not just because of the size of the collection. “A lot of people in Buffalo have no idea that there is so much presidential history here,” she explained. “People need a physical space to connect to – something that physically exists… a place to visit. Just think about all of the people here in Buffalo that are not aware of the Museum. Then think of the people in other parts of the country that are not aware. In the book “Dead Presidents” by Brady Carlson (who is not from Buffalo), he wrote that other than Washington, DC, Buffalo has the richest presidential history than any other city in the US. He visited and studied all of the other cities before coming to that conclusion. It’s another reason to love Buffalo.”
On top of having a dedicated space to play around with, the Center will continue to partner will all of the historical sites around the region. The Center will also continue to display rotating exhibits and feature collections from people who are on the Center’s board, among others. We’re talking about a Western NY cultural asset that has many resources at its fingertips – one that continues to grow thanks to donations from collectors near and far.
I asked Brigance how she came to be aligned with the Center, and she explained, “When I was a little girl in the 50s, my goal was to speak at a national political convention. I watched them all – I was always fascinated with politics. I ended up as a professor of communications at SUNY Fredonia. Most of the courses involved decoding the pervasive messages – political communication. After retiring, I went to an event at the Buffalo History Museum, and the Center had a booth there. After a long discussion, someone asked me to be on the board and I said yes.”
The Buffalo Presidential Center is dedicated to highlighting the contributions of Buffalo’s two native presidents and other WNYers who have contributed to the national political landscape throughout history.
Brigance clued me into a lot of the Center’s goings-on, but my biggest takeaway was hearing her talk about … how we present history. “Every choice the Museum makes… every word or artifact tells a story. The curator is responsible for how that story is told. Yes, there are facts that are provable, but there is also a human making a choice about what goes into an exhibit to tell the story. Some exhibit spaces are small, and a limited number of artifacts can be displayed. Just think about this – how does Germany and Poland represent WWII in their museums? [How does the storytelling differ?] I study all of this, and now I’m in the midst of helping to put together a museum [quite a responsibility!] A curator has the ability to tell the story in different ways. We’re here to tell the political history and the grandeur of Western NY as it pertains to the presidential office – it’s the story that we want to tell.”
Brigance said that it is her responsibility, along with others at the Center, to tell these stories as accurately as possible, using the ever-mounting resources that are at their disposal.
Aside from the presidential items displayed, there will also be a wider net cast on people from the region who had a significant impact on national politics, such as Jack Kemp, Belva Lockwood, and Shirley Chisholm. “It’s not the President Center… it’s the Presidential Center,” Brigance reminded me.
For those interested in interacting with the Center, before the actual opening in mid-October, there will be a virtual Zoom lecture in tandem with The History Museum, presented by board member Bren Price Sr. The pre-recorded lecture will revolve around the Center’s first exhibit in its new space – how the images of donkeys and elephants have been used by the respective political parties.
When: Sep 23, 2020 06:00 PM Eastern Time (US and Canada)
Topic: Elephants and Donkeys
Webinar registration: Zoom
See: Facebook event
The new space at the Library is thanks to the support Mark Poloncarz, the Erie County Public Library, and the County Legislature
Get connected: www.buffalopresidentialcenter.org