Things great and small: Scale at Shelburne
By Thomas A. Denenberg
Electra Havemeyer Webb possessed a keen sense of scale, collecting objects large, small, and in prodigious quantity. Her aspirational spirit, witnessed by such heroic feats as moving historic houses, a covered bridge, a lighthouse (Fig. 23), and a steamboat to create the Shelburne Museum in the decade after World War II, balanced deeply held interests in the minutiae of collecting and an eye for seriality. Mrs. Webb, the daughter and confidant of renowned collectors, stands out for the way she composed a series of experiential environments in which to display and interpret one of the premier collections of art, Americana, and design in the United States. Simultaneously intimate and grand, her vision has delighted visitors for over sixty-five years.
Miniature hat and dress shop made by Helen Bruce (b. 1880), New York, early 1950s. Painted wood, paper, fabric, glass, metal, and ceramic; height 28, width 39, depth 12 inches. A dealer and collector of miniatures, Bruce owned an antiques shop in New YorkCity during the 1940s and 1950s. It is likely that she and Electra Webb became acquainted at that time. This vitrine is about four times larger than the thirty-six other scenes and fan cases that Bruce created for Mrs. Webb.
After "over-furnishing" her houses with "china, porcelain, pottery, pewter, glass, dolls, quilts, cigar store Indians, eagles, folk art" for close to three decades, Mrs. Webb founded the museum in 1947.1 Locating it in the village of Shelburne, alongside Route 7-the state's principal north-south artery-ensured public exposure for the endeavor, but it also presented a challenge, as the landscape reflected the typical commercial development of the automobile age, complete with stores, filling stations, and other modern distractions. Mrs. Webb's response was to create an ideal village of her own, comprised of a mélange of relocated (mostly) nineteenth-century structures and historically suggestive modern buildings on an invented landscape that included two man-made ponds and a road system designed to create a narrative experience of crossing over an 1845 covered bridge and leading to a meeting house. Mrs. Webb designed this landscape to house her "collection of collections" in an environment of creatively restored dwelling houses, taverns, barns, and other buildings gleaned from the New England countryside.
She consulted museum professionals throughout the early years of the museum, among them Kenneth Chorley of Colonial Williamsburg. She also engaged Umberto Innocenti (1895-1968) of the eminent New York landscape architecture firm Innocenti and Webel to design the grounds of her museum. She interpreted these plans loosely, and, working from a model, moved maquettes of historic structures around while bulldozers were shaping the land to fit her vision. A dedicated team of local craftsmen made this invented village real, often employing modern infrastructure to create an experience where the spirit of an idealized past trumped authenticity.
Moving the steamboat Ticonderoga from Lake Champlain to the grounds of the museum-an overland journey of just over two miles-stands as one of the great gestures in the history of American museums. Not content to collect paintings of steamboats (she gathered some nine examples by John and James Bard), Mrs. Webb purchased an actual vessel in 1951 (Figs. 1, 3), which she initially used as an excursion vessel. In 1954 she decided to move the Ti to her museum, precipitating an elaborate engineering project that saw a special railway constructed from a basin on Lake Champlain to a dry swale on the grounds of the museum. Throughout the winter of 1955 the ship moved over hills, crossed streams, and rode on a special railway carriage through the woods until she reached her eventual resting place. In the early 1960s, the Ti was declared a National Historic Landmark.
Although Mrs. Webb is best remembered for the large-scale reconstruction of her museum village, her initial love was for the miniature, in dolls and dollhouses. "I feel," she wrote of her dolls, "that I started at about ten years old."2 Over the course of her life, she came to accumulate some five hundred dolls and, even after becoming known as a leading collector of folk art and American paintings, she insisted that "the largest collection I wish to install [at the museum] is my dolls and dollhouses."3 Susan Stewart, writing of the dollhouse, notes the irony of the object-a plaything at least ostensibly for a child, but designed to delight adults. Dollhouses, she continues, are about wealth and nostalgia. "Occupying a space within an enclosed space, the dollhouse's aptest analogy is the locket or the secret recesses of the heart."4 They allow us to revise-literally replay-our pasts and make whole some emotional lacunae.
A dollhouse given to Electra Webb by her friend the actress and comedian Zasu Pitts (see Fig. 27) demonstrates their shared sense of mirth and is but one example of a miniature world at Shelburne-a world that also includes miniature sleighs and carriages, toys of all stripes, sophisticated nineteenth-century automatons, and a series of miniature rooms created by Helen Bruce (see Fig. 24). Less well-known than the miniature rooms commissioned by Mrs. James Ward Thorne for the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1930s, Bruce's rooms reflect Webb's interest in color, pattern, whimsy, and scale.5 Whereas the Thorne rooms allow the visitor a vicarious peek into a clinically perfect interior, the Bruce rooms are "over-furnished"- a distillation of Electra Webb's taste for a romantic view of the past.
The grandest expression of Webb's interest in the miniature came toward the end of her life when she purchased the remarkable circus of Roy F. Arnold. A paper executive from West Springfield, Massachusetts, Arnold received national attention in 1954 when Life magazine chronicled his remarkable hand-carved circus parade. Five hundred and twenty-five feet long when fully installed, Arnold's circus was constructed with the aid of four other men and included representations of the most ornate circus wagons in American history. Arnold's masterpiece captivated Electra Webb to such a degree that she constructed a semicircular building in which to display it in its entirely, even going so far as to investigate installing a conveyor belt to heighten the visitor experience.
As an example of contemporary folk art, the Arnold circus took its place at the Shelburne Museum alongside a nationally renowned collection of untutored creative expression. From the very first tobacconist figure that she purchased as a young woman-an acquisition that elicited parental disapproval-Webb acquired with ecumenical spirit. Trade signs, folk carvings, plain portraits-all found a home at Shelburne. Mrs. Webb particularly enjoyed the humorous potential of oversized nineteenth-century trade signs. A huge, fancy-painted rocking chair that once graced the top of a furniture factory became a favorite prop for photographs of family and friends (see Fig. 27). A pair of spectacles that originally drummed up business for an optician could be found displayed next to oversized tableware or several large teeth (see Fig. 18)!
Electra Webb's playful sense of scale ensured that visitors to her museum would learn their history lessons with a knowing wink. Her intentions, however, were serious. She employed radical changes in scale to disrupt expectations and to suspend disbelief. She wanted visitors to come away with an appreciation of the aesthetics, craftsmanship, and ingenuity of their ancestors just when such attributes seemed to be rapidly disappearing from the American scene. Her use of scale proved to be but one strategy for conveying a message of American exceptionalism in the modern era.
THOMAS A. DENENBERG is the director of Shelburne Museum.
1 Lauren B. Hewes and Celia Y. Oliver, To Collect in Earnest: The Life and Work of Electra Havemeyer Webb (Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vt., 1997), p. 18. 2 Quoted in Jean M. Burks, The Dolls of Shelburne Museum (Shelburne Museum, 2004), p. 2 3 Ibid., p. 3. 4 Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Duke University Press, Durham, N.C., 1993), p. 61. 5 Celia Y. Oliver, "Helen Bruce, Electra Webb, and Their Miniature Vitrines," Piecework, vol. 6, no. 3 (May/June 1998), pp. 50-54.