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Miriam Wells

“A Collection of Collections:” Reconciling Art and Historic Preservation at the Shelburne Museum

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      The Shelburne Museum identifies itself as an art museum, consisting primarily of the folk art collections of its founder Electra Havemeyer Webb. Museum scholars, as well as the public, understand the museum in rather different terms; it is often described as a living history museum, in the same category as Sturbridge Village or Old World Wisconsin. It has accepted this dichotomy with few complaints, since its unique combination of attractions has made it singularly successful. However, it has consistently made its decorative and folk art collections its highest priority, while neglecting the history of the buildings assembled on the museum campus.

            The buildings were not haphazard acquisitions. Electra Havemeyer Webb sought out most of the buildings from communities scattered across Vermont for their historic merit and architectural interest. They were not high-style, but they portrayed the wide range of vernacular building types throughout Vermont, and each structure had an intriguing story that remained unpublicized. There was one building, however, that remained a mystery to the curators of the museum, and that was the Variety Unit. The Variety Unit, a sprawling building with at least three main segments, had not been moved from its original location, but had been heavily altered to hold collections at the museum’s inception.

            During a large renovation project, NEH Project Coordinator David Furlong and I  discovered some interesting architectural and archeological evidence in the building. Combined with a social history of the ownership and growth of the house, the findings at the Variety Unit indicated the need for a new type of exhibit. The museum’s mission and its priority of housing decorative arts had kept it from emphasizing the history of the buildings on the campus, much less their architectural design, or any material culture findings within them.

            In the process of conducting research on some of the buildings, I came to the conclusion that it would be beneficial to implement a different kind of exhibit—one that featured the buildings in a historical and architectural light, in much the same way that museums like Strawbery Banke have done. Elements of the buildings’ histories could  be highlighted in a way that sparked further inquiry and engaged the audience. Contrary to the concerns of the Shelburne Museum, these would not be an imposition upon the artworks, or the mission of the museum. They would, however, add to importance of the museum locally, and bring a new dimension to the Shelburne’s collections.


          Miriam Wells received her AB in history from the University of Chicago in 2001. She has conducted a material culture investigation for the buildings of the Shelburne Museum, and has assisted in three HABS documentation projects. Currently, she is organizing the first historic preservation symposium at the Art Institute.


Thesis Advisor: Mark Igleski, AIA Instructor, Historic Preservation; McGuire, Igleski and Associates

Thesis Reader: David Furlong, NEH Project Coordinator, Shelburne Museum

Second Reader: Charles Pipal,  AIAInstructor, Historic Preservation






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