SHELBURNE, Vt. — America has a tradition of establishing eccentric museums that people don’t quite know what to make of. At least, not at first. Their founders, in several key cases, were women. The most famous, Isabella Stewart Gardner, was inspired to establish a faux-Venetian palazzo in swampy land near Fenway Park. Half a century later, sugar heiress Electra Havemeyer Webb (1888-1960) opened Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vt., on the shores of Lake Champlain. It deserves to be just as well known.
When asked to explain what the Shelburne would be, ahead of its 1947 opening, Webb wrote: “It will be an educational project, varied and alive.” She was true to her word.
Initially, as a museum, Shelburne makes little sense. It’s an open campus, with lovely landscaping and, off to one side, a fine recent addition, the Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education, designed by Ann Beha. But there’s no obvious center to it. It’s just a lot of stuff, spread out before you like a banquet. You walk through one strange door after another and don’t know what to expect inside. Quilts here. Dolls there. Circus posters. Stuffed bears. Duck decoys. Impressionist paintings. Stage coaches. Weather vanes.
“Every museum thinks they’re unique,” says the museum’s director, Thomas Denenberg. “We are.”
The buildings themselves are a big reason. Shelburne boasts 25 historic, vernacular buildings spread over a 45-acre campus. Webb had them transported to Vermont from all over America. They include a jail, a meeting house, a Shaker shed, a schoolhouse, a blacksmith shop, a general store and apothecary, a covered bridge and a functioning carousel. Most eye-catching of all is the Ticonderoga, a 220-foot steamboat weighing 892 gross tons.
Built at the Shelburne Shipyard in 1905 and 1906, the Ticonderoga operated on Lake Champlain for almost half a century. Webb had it moved from Shelburne Harbor to the museum campus — a short distance, but it took over two months — early in 1955.
Webb was the daughter of the sugar magnate Henry Osborne Havemeyer and his wife Louisine Havemeyer. She grew up in a Fifth Avenue mansion in New York City. Louis Comfort Tiffany designed the interior, which was richly furnished and adorned with silk brocades, ivory carvings and Impressionist paintings (Louisine was a friend of Mary Cassatt). But Electra’s own first purchase as a collector (she was 19; her father had just left her a fortune) was a cigar store Indian that she saw outside a tobacco store in rural Connecticut.
The museum’s focus is folk art and 19th century Americana. But the campus also boasts a re-creation of part of the Havemeyers’ 1930s Park Avenue apartment, its walls adorned with paintings by Manet, Monet, Cassatt and Corot (two of whose paintings Shelburne has lent to the current Corot exhibit at the National Gallery).
The other buildings bobble with Webb’s wonderful collections of late 18th and 19th century ceramics, tools, toys, circus paraphernalia, posters, carriages, furniture, firearms and trade signs. Webb loved to collect things in depth, often favoring quantity over quality — although that doesn’t mean the quality isn’t there. The museum has around 150,000 works. Most of them are on view.
There’s something refreshingly teeming and unfussy about the displays. They are not immersive. You are not supposed to feel as if you have walked into a schoolhouse or a jail with everything intact, just as it was back in the day. Instead, the displays emphasize the things Webb collected, in great quantities. She wanted you to fall in love with this stuff. Her watchwords — her guiding principles as a collector — were color,pattern,whimsy and scale.
Scale, you feel, was especially important. Webb collected “not just doll houses but actual houses,” says Denenberg, “and not just paintings of ships but actual ships.” She loved to place miniature dolls next to giant baby dolls. She collected not only toy trains and train stations, but also the real things: an 1890 Berlin coach and an actual train station.
Among the museum’s highlights is the long, C-shaped Circus Building, which houses the 525-foot Roy Arnold Miniature Circus Parade, carved and painted over 25 years by Roy Arnold, and the 3,500-piece Kirk Brothers Circus, its pieces carved by hand using a penknife and foot-powered jigsaw and fastidiously painted over a 46-year period.
The museum is one rich woman’s vision, to be sure. But that vision is, as Denenberg points out, incredibly ecumenical. You feel some of the founder’s eccentricity; but you don’t feel her breathing down your neck as you sometimes do at comparable museums, even at the wonderful Gardner Museum in Boston or at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia.
The Shelburne Museum definitely deserves to be called a museum. It probably also deserves credit for inspiring other, unconventional approaches to displaying objects that are not valued today, but may well be in the future.
Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vt. shelburnemuseum.org.