I only stopped at the Shelburne Museum because Jake and Michelle recommended it. I wasn’t in the mood for a museum, and looking at it from the road the place didn’t seem all that impressive. But I had a lot of time to kill before I was supposed to be in Burlington, so I decided to pull into the parking lot and buy a ticket.
The woman at the counter gave me a map and directed me to the door on the other end of the gift shop. I walked through it to find myself back outside, looking out over a field. There was a foot path and a sign pointing to the left for the Round Barn, an architectural feature which for some reason people always find intriguing. I walked over to the barn and began looking at the antique farm equipment and horse-drawn carts kept inside. The barn itself was an artifact, having been moved to the museum from its original location. “Okay,” I thought to myself, “It’s one of those homestead museums with stuff about rural life 100 years ago.” I continued to look around.
Outside I saw another sign on the path directing me towards the Circus Building. I looked over and saw a carnival carousel full of children. My brain struggled to connect what I was seeing with where I had just been. I pulled out my map and confirmed that all three of these structures were part of the museum. The field was part of the museum. In fact, the Shelburne Museum sits on 45 acres of land and is comprised of 39 buildings, 25 of which are historic structures that were relocated to the grounds (such as the barn). My map indicated a shuttle route I could take advantage of if the walking became too much for me. This was a lot more museum than I had anticipated.
Behind the fully functional carousel was the Circus Building. It was shaped like a horseshoe and I slipped in through a door on one end. The shape of the building created a single, long, curving hallway. On my right were historic carousel pieces – horses, sleighs, lions, etc. They were lined up in rows, one right after the other. On my left was a continuous glass case which held miniature circus figures lined up in a parade. There were tiny llamas and elephants. There were figures of monkeys riding donkeys led by clowns. There were horses and dancing girls and lions in cages. And this went on through the entire building. The whole way around there were carousel horses on my right and tiny trapeze artists on my left. I must have seen several hundred figurines. Near the end there were about a dozen old circus posters that read like the lyrics to “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”
After the easily 15 minute walk through the circus building and a brief stop to see a large rifle collection in the Beach Gallery, it was clear that I didn’t have time to see everything. My map included a “Highlights” tour for those with limited time, and I decided to follow it. The nearest building on the list was actually a ship – the Ticonderoga steamboat. This National Landmark is 220 feet long, 107 years old, and sitting in the middle of a field in Vermont. The entire ship had been renovated and filled with period-appropriate pieces from the days back in the early 20th century when the Ticonderoga sailed the north-south route on Lake Champlain. I caught the tail end of a free tour and learned about the hardships of shoveling coal.
I decided to deviate from my Highlights tour in order to visit the Apothecary Shop. I can’t understand how any person could pass up a visit to an Apothecary Shop. The shop was connected to the General Store, and both were filled to the brim with artifacts. There were old bottles lining the walls and antique tin cans advertising the high quality hair pomade that was once inside. The docent in charge of the General Store insisted I also take a look at the Dentist’s Office.
On the second floor of the building was a fully furnished dental office, including an old dentist’s chair and some terrifying tools. There was still a part of my mind that couldn’t understand where I was. There was the barn with the farm equipment, then the figurines of dogs riding Shetland ponies, then the giant steamboat, and now a room full of scary doctor’s equipment above a fake store pretending to sell vials of snake oil. I suppose the thing that was really putting me off balance was that I had absolutely no clue what expectations to have for each successive building. I was starting to feel like nothing could surprise me, because everything did.
I made my way past the Heritage Garden and the 1782 Dutton House and Tavern to get to the Hat and Fragrance Textile Gallery. The tour described it as “A riot of quilts, rugs, samplers, and more.” In case you’re wondering, it takes an awful lot of quilts to form a riot. There were so many quilts on display that some of them were sandwiched between panes of glass and lined up in an accordion-style viewer like cheap posters in a college bookstore. Guests could thumb through the giant pieces from the 1800s while even more impressive textiles loomed over them on all sides. After walking past a room full of so many Persian rugs that they had to be stacked on top of each other, I found an intriguing side area full of glass cases. Inside each case was a tiny scene. There would be a seamstress’s shop with the most impossibly small spools of thread. Or maybe an old Victorian home that could be mistaken for the most ornate dollhouse you’ve ever scene. I assumed this is what they mean by the “and more” part of the gallery description.
Right outside was the Smokehouse. You know, one of those old buildings constructed to house a slow-burning fire that would smoke a variety of hanging meats to preserve them for the winter. A simple, 4×6 foot smoke house. From 1820. Across from the Toy Shop.
In the Stagecoach Inn I got to see folk art sculptures and paintings, along with weathervanes and duck decoys. This is to say nothing of the whirligigs. Every museum ought to have a full collection of 100-year-old whirligigs.
I walked by the Covered Bridge, which was once the main entrance to the museum. It had been brought over from Cambridge, Vermont, and was now used only by maintenance vehicles. I had seen something about the Covered Bridge back at the entrance but wasn’t quite sure what the big deal was. It was easier to understand looking at it. Consider for a moment that we’re talking about a two-lane bridge, not a single lane bridge. The thing is huge, made of wood, and was built in 1845 for a road 40 miles away.
I was getting tired. I had already been at the museum for much longer than I anticipated. But there were two more buildings on my tour, near the entrance. I hopped on the oversized golf cart shuttle and got off at the Electra Havemeyer Webb Memorial Building. Most of the buildings at Shelburne were named for their purpose or contents – the Weaving Shop, the Meeting House, the Artisans Shop. This was one of only a few buildings named after a person. I assumed that like so many wings of so many hospitals it was named after a big donor to the museum. That is, as I found out, a supreme understatement.
In 1910 Electra Havenmeyer married James Watson Webb, an heir to the Vanderbilt family fortune. Perhaps her most distinguishing feature was her ability to recognize the value of American history long before anyone else did. She was collecting Americana art before anyone realized it was art. After many years of unique taste and unlimited finances she had enough objects to start a museum, and that museum became the Shelburne. She wasn’t just a major donor. When the museum started, she was the only donor.
Upon entering the memorial building I was greeted by a docent, who asked if I would like some help navigating the exhibits. She pointed to the rooms on either side of her and up the stairs and began reciting their contents.
“Here is where you will find the family’s living room,” she said, “and over to the side are the impressionist paintings – be sure to go into that room over there where we have four Monets -“
“Monets?” I asked her, positive I misheard.
“That’s right,” she said, “It’s the closest you’ll ever be to a Monet.”
I was too distracted by the thought of a place having both a barn and a Monet that I didn’t bother to ask for an explanation about the phrase “family’s living room.” I walked over to the Monet room, which was the only place on the museum grounds where I had seen a security guard. Seizing the opportunity, I stuck my nose as close to the paintings as I could, then stepped back to see the difference as the abstract strokes turned into figures. I felt the guard looking at me and worried I was getting too close for his comfort. He approached me.
“If you look at this one you can actually see where some of his brush hairs came off,” he told me. I moved to the painting in question and marveled at my own proximity to the leftover tools of the founder of Impressionism.
In turning to the center of the room I couldn’t help but notice I was in someone’s dining room. Not in a room made to look like a dining room, or a gallery that included a nice dinning room table. I was in their actual dining room. One room over I found myself in the living room, and later in a bedroom. This building included, brick for brick, several fully furnished rooms from the 1967 Park Avenue apartment of museum founder Electra Havemeyer Webb. In every space there was a small photo album with images of the original rooms, each looking exactly the same then as they do now.
I learned more about Electra when I went to my final stop, the Center for Art and Education. This was the most modern of any of the buildings – it had only been open for four days. I realized when I got inside that it was supposed to be my first stop, rather than my last. The center includes a small sample from nearly every collection on the campus. There was a single carousel horse and one large rug. There was a stack of a dozen hatboxes where earlier I had seen a hundred. The Center was a collection of the collections, organized to show what the curators felt were the four common themes in the museum pieces: Color, Pattern, Whimsy, and Scale. When put like that, I could finally see the connections. Color in the paintings, pattern in the rugs, whimsy in the circus clowns, scale in the dollhouses. In the Center for Art and Education I saw pieces I had missed from the buildings I didn’t have time to see. I examined my map again, suddenly realizing the scope of what I had passed by: the Horseshoe Barn full of stagecoaches and carriages, the Blacksmith Shop and the Jail, the full-sized steam engine replica. I struggled with the thought. Even after spending the day there it was hard to imagine a place where you could get so distracted by a doctor’s office or a Degas painting that you don’t notice a train.
The Shelburne isn’t a museum, it’s an amusement park. It’s a town. It’s a spectacle. It’s a sideshow. It is the most eclectic damn place I’ve ever seen. I never knew what would be around the next corner and I found that sense of discomfort to be delightful. I wish every museum could hit us with such surprise and confusion. Or maybe I just wish the Shelburne was closer to home. I would go visit every summer. And I would never see it all.
I can’t believe I only took four pictures.