The present learns from the past

September 2009 | The Shelburne Museum and The Magazine ANTIQUES have a long history together. Within a year of the museum fully opening in 1953, Alice Winchester, the magazine's editor, introduced it to her readers as "one of the...most unusual museums" in the country, its "collection of collections" assembled over a lifetime by Electra Havemeyer Webb, whom she described, with what turns out to have been some understatement, as "a person of rare discrimination, ingenuity, and taste." In the years since, the magazine has published numerous articles about the astonishingly diverse holdings so ingeniously arranged by Webb at Shelburne, which only seem to appear more inspired and inspiring as the years go by. (For a list of the articles about the museum published by the magazine, click here)

During an unseasonably warm and sunny weekend last March, the museum and the magazine collaborated to give eight contemporary fine and decorative artists a close look at Webb's masterwork, to see how it resonates with the creative mind today. The group included furniture maker Chris Lehrecke, glassmaker Toots Zynsky, ceramist Michelle Erickson, artist Robert H. Cumming, miniatures painter Elizabeth Berdann, printmaker Andrew Raftery, textile artist Richard Saja, and designer of jewelry and decorative objects Ted Muehling. Each was asked to choose one piece that sparked his or her imagination in a new way. As anyone who has been to Shelburne will tell you, though, the holdings are vast in number and virtually indescribable in scope, so it is no surprise that few were able to pick just one thing.

To get in the spirit, everyone was invited to stay at the Brick House, Webb's rambling Vermont country house overlooking Lake Champlain, which has been carefully restored to what it looked like during the crucial years when she was formulating her ideas about collecting, decorating, and what she wanted her museum to be. Cell phones do not get reception in the Brick House, and there is no such thing as television. During the three-day weekend, there was just a hint of what it must have been like when Webb and her husband, J. Watson Webb (1884-1960), hosted house parties—excitement, conviviality, and delicious food and drinks. On Friday night a number of friends of the museum came for cocktails and dinner, along with Stephan Jost, Shelburne's charming and energetic director, curators Jean Burks and Kory Rogers, and several other key museum people. But for much of the time the participants could relax in the Webbs' den with its painted-wood "curtains" and lamps made from early coffee grinders, butter churns, and the like (a trend Electra Webb seems to have sparked), peruse their books and family photographs, and just talk—about their own work as well as what they were seeing at the museum.

Each morning after breakfast around the colonial revival tiger maple dining table, everyone set off for the museum. Because it is only open from Memorial Day to late October, the grounds were otherwise deserted, save for a few obliging staff members who unlocked doors and deactivated alarms, turned on lights, and removed dust sheets, not to mention provided much-needed lunches. Traipsing from one end of the site's over forty acres to the other and crisscrossing the property, past the Round Barn, which houses seasonal exhibitions, past the Colchester Reef Lighthouse (hoisted on stilts as a new foundation was being built) and the Ticonderoga that now forever steams by it, Burks and Rogers took the group into a good many of the museum's thirty-nine buildings.

The delight was palpable, the questions many, not only about specific objects but about the museum and its creator. Burks pointed out that what still holds it all together is Webb's penchant for seeing "color, pattern, scale, and whimsy in all mediums," however unlikely. Very little has been written or recorded about Webb's "philosophy," she said, remarking to me later that Elizabeth Stillinger's chapter for her forthcoming book, A Kind of Archeology: Collecting Folk Art in America 1876-1976, is the best account of what seems to have made Webb tick. Stillinger very kindly forwarded me a copy of her illuminating chapter (the book is scheduled for publication by the University of Massachusetts Press in 2010). This, in turn, sent me back to the archivist at Shelburne for a copy of the typescript of the speech Webb gave at the Antiques Forum at Colonial Williamsburg Forum in 1958. Though so faint as to be almost unreadable, this document reveals a wry, self-effacing sense of humor while shedding light on the years Webb spent collecting—and realizing that though she wanted to start a museum, she did not quite know how to go about it.

Recalling that what "lit the fire" was her husband and his siblings' desire to keep the collection of carriages and sleighs assembled by their parents, she explained: "I had my opening.... I had dreamed of it all these years, but...[had been unable] to explain to them what I wanted to do. So as long as this carriage collection was to be kept, they said I could do it. Well, from then on there was no holding me!" At first the family "suggested a Quonset hut" to house the carriages, and "that hurt a little bit. Then I decided that maybe a barn." In the end, elements from twelve Vermont barns and two gristmills were hauled to the site and the first museum building was erected—a huge horseshoe-shaped "barn" that still holds the carriages collection.

Quite often, she admitted, people told her she was crazy. More than once she heard "You can't do it! You cannot do it!" It is clear that little stopped her. It is also clear that she never considered the museum fully finished. Stephan Jost told me, "When I arrived at Shelburne I had the great fortune of having several meetings with Lillian Baker Carlisle who has since passed away. She was a scholar by nature and functioned as Mrs. Webb's first registrar and curator [she also wrote several articles for Antiques over the years]. She told me how Mrs. Webb was always changing things and was frustrated by static museums such as Mrs. [Isabella Stewart] Gardner's in Boston. I think the greatest honor we can do is maintain this dynamic spirit by interpreting her collection in new ways." It is this sort of dynamism that motivated the March weekend. As the profiles that follow reveal, such endeavors not only allow the past to inspire the present, but also allow the present to offer new ways of looking at the past.

Image: Round Barn, built in East Passumpsic, Vermont, 1901, moved to the Shelburne Museum in 1985-1986, where it serves as the entrance. Photograph by courtesy of the Shelburne Museum, Vermont.

Next: Robert H. Cumming

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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