Shelburne Museum

Burlington, Vermont, USA

Quick Review

Soon after I moved to Montreal, I was discussing day trips with the locals and someone suggested the Shelburne Museum near Burlington, Vermont.  People described it as a farm with an eclectic collection.  On the first of many trips, I endured a 1.75-hour wait at the border (learning a valuable lesson about lines at the border) that later proved worthy of every second.  I fell in love with this museum and have visited every summer since.

The Shelburne Museum is actually the geographic and intellectual estate of founder and initial benefactor Electra Havemeyer Webb (doesn’t that name sound like someone who’d found a museum?), located just south of Burlington.  According to the website, she collected art with a “distinctly American aesthetic” and founded what has become, according to its website (and seems accurate to me):

“one of the finest, most diverse, and unconventional museums of art and Americana. Over 150,000 works are exhibited in a remarkable setting of 39 exhibition buildings, 25 of which are historic and were relocated to the Museum grounds.”

Among the highlights of the collection:

  • A two-story house filled exclusively with decorative arts, including extensive collections of Wedgewood china and every type of early American class—every day, ceremonial, together telling the story of the early craft and manufacture of glass in the US
  • Another two-story house filled almost exclusively with duck decoys, a uniquely American art that I learned to appreciate when I lived in Minnesota and that few museums specialize in (a museum in Maryland specializes in them)
  • Another house of old toys
  • A house of Impressionist paintings
  • A house with textiles, and that usually features a special exhibition of fashion, including the work of haute couture designers and, last year, robots
  • Old carriages
  • The SS Ticonderoga, a steamboat that once ferried passengers on Lake Champlain
  • A covered bridge (that admittedly goes nowhere now)
  • A re-purposed cargo car from a train that houses changing exhibitions of contemporary art

Even the grounds are an exhibition: showing collections of native plants.

My favorite is Mrs. Webb’s house, which tells her story and provides insights into  her motivation to found this museum and her choices in shaping its initial history.

Most of the houses on the site were transported from locations around Vermont and upstate New York

Each exhibition is well documented with labels that inform but don’t overwhelm.  (The size of the museum and scope of its collections overwhelm all on their own.)  Volunteer docents in each building are happy to explain; in fact, they’re among the most eager docents I’ve ever seen.

The gift store is also a treasure; it features Vermont-made crafts and classic candies (the ones from my childhood).

Although the curators present the different parts of the collection separately (except in the Webb House), they work together to provide insights into the early American and uniquely New England psyche, and celebrate ingenuity in crafts, manufacturing, and art.

Although some people might find the size of the estate daunting (I just think it’s good exercise), the size of the collection is what is truly daunting.  But separating the collections individual houses helps keep visits manageable; visitors can focus on just one or two houses in depth that interest them.

For those willing to invest a weekend, all admissions are for two consecutive days.

Note:  Since my visit, the museum has opened a new year-round Welcome Center.  See Edward Rothstein’s review in the New York Times.

Fast Facts about the Museum
Type of Museum: Honestly, it defies classification.  It is both a history and culture, and art museum.Highlights of the Permanent Collection: Collections of American impressionist paintings, decoys, decorative arts, textiles, vehicles (including a steam boat), buildings, contemporary art, quilts, and folk art

Notes about Special Exhibitions: Change every summer, most start with the summer opening date.

Special Amenities: Dining facilities, activities for children and families, demonstrations, excellent gift shop, free parking

Admission Discounts: Vermont residents, military and retired military

Issues to Consider When Visiting: A minimum of 4 hours.  A day is better.

Also note that, except for the Visitor Center, the museum is only open from mid-May through the end of October.

Website: www.shelburnemuseum.org

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