Sunday through Wednesday of this past week was spent in Shelburne, Vermont, two of those days with the express purpose of visiting the Shelburne Museum. A huge collection of art and artifacts from American history are exhibited here in 39 buildings, 25 of which are relocated, historic New England structures set on 45 beautifully landscaped acres. The buildings recreate a New England town reminiscent of the 19th century.
Shelburne Museum’s founder, Electra Havemeyer Webb, created this place to display her vast collection of American folk art. It began in 1908 when 18-year-old Electra one day announced to her mother: “I’ve bought a work of art!” — and showed her a cigar-store Indian she had just purchased for $25. Mom, on the other hand, thought more along the lines of “art” being the original Degas hanging in the sitting room.
And her collections grew. “The rooms were over-filled,” she later wrote. “Then the closets and the attics were filled. I just couldn’t let good pieces go by — china, porcelain, pottery, pewter, glass, dolls, quilts, cigar-store Indians, eagles, folk art. They all seemed to appeal to me.”
Today the Shelburne Museum collection contains more than 150,000 items. In addition to the Monet, Manet, Degas, and Cassatt paintings, there is also American folk art from the 18th and 19th centuries on display, including weathervanes, scrimshaw, carriages, quilts, and one house dedicated solely to bird decoys (who knew there were that many different kinds??).
Unique structures include a covered bridge, a circus building with carousel, a general store, a jail, a lighthouse and a National Historic Landmark, the steamboat Ticonderoga.
Truly a wonderful place, Shelburne Museum is captivating even on a cold, rainy Vermont spring day. I would love to visit it again in the summer when the gardens are in bloom – especially the 400 peony plants. Somehow they seem to go just right with hatboxes, weathervanes, and all those decoys!