Generally, these days, my first thought upon going to a new place is, “How many museums can I get to, and which ones?” So, it is really a true vacation when museums are not my top priority, and where I’m not in a place where they necessarily should be, such as Grand Isle, Vermont. I did however make an exception for the Shelburne Museum, since 1) it really is unique among museums and is therefore worth seeing while I am nearby, and 2) it’s a sort of vacation museum for me, as a large amount of it is outside, and is more history than art-y, so I don’t have to be thinking like an art museum professional.
It was, indeed, wonderful. The major highlights of its collection are all buildings or large structures – 39 of them, on 45 acres. Notable are the Round Barn, the steamship Ticonderoga, and an old private railroad car – pictured below (photos courtesy of me).
In a building that reconstructs period rooms from the museum founder Electra Webb’s swanky 740 Park Avenue NYC apartment, were hung the jewels of the art collection: an impressive suite of Monets, Manets, Degas, Cassatts and Chases – several of them portraits of Webb’s family members which included Vanderbilts and Havemeyers. It was a not unpleasant change to see these masterpieces in situ, in period rooms as many of of them would have originally been hung (of course, during the period, they were just called “rooms”).
In terms of museum practice (because I’m never totally off duty, am I?), I thought it was all very well done. Not overly text-heavy, only what was necessary, and you could skip the text but still easily enjoy what you were seeing. There was a well-done mini exhibit about conservation, where you could try different types of diagnostic light. This kind of thing often ends up hokey, but in this case was not.
Many of the buildings had staff members waiting inside who immediately stood when a visitor entered, ready to explain the building’s history and its contents. I think this is great, way better than lots of text, except when I was rushing to see as many buildings in a small amount of time, and I got held up by chatty docents because I wanted to be supportive and encouraging and not rude, and let them use their knowledge.
Similarly, several of the workshop buildings had working docents using the machinery – the print shop, the blacksmith, the weaving shop, et cetera – though they weren’t in period costume, like at Old Sturbridge Village, nor did they have to talk in period-appropriate language, as in this hilarious episode of South Park. This was informative and engaging, but could also lead to being stuck with a chatty docent.
Over all, a great experience. It’s always good to check out museums outside one’s area of specialty–something I don’t often enough make it a point to do.
And a bonus: just so you know what it is I’ve been forsaking my blogging for, here’s just one example of the view from our backyard: