“We forge ahead,” Electra Havemeyer Webb, founder of the Shelburne Museum, remarked in the museum’s early days.
Even with Webb’s extraordinary philanthropy and pioneering vision, there were plenty of challenges right from the beginning in 1947 — moving historic structures including the Vergennes schoolhouse to the grounds, devising ingenious transport to haul the side-paddle-wheel steamship Ticonderoga overland from Lake Champlain to her permanent grassy mooring in 1954, and presenting collections from glass canes to horse drawn carriage.
Today, 73 years since Shelburne Museum’s 1947 founding, Webb’s words resonate during the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.
For the first time in its history, the museum grounds are not open this spring. The reopening date is not yet set, but at this time, the physical museum is likely closed through the summer.
Although the grounds are closed, Shelburne Museum is forging ahead, making its treasures accessible to the public in fresh ways. The museum has long excelled at presenting exhibitions in physical space. Responding quickly, very quickly, to the shutdown, the curatorial team accelerated the organization’s digital presence and has launched its first online exhibitions: “Color, Pattern, Whimsy, Scale” and “American Stories.” The first installments of both exhibitions are now online, free and open to the public.
“The museum has been around for 73 years, through wars and crises and we will get through this,” said Director Tom Denenberg. “The collections and buildings at Shelburne Museum remind us that there is a longer timeline than an individual event.”
With the recognition of the disruption of normal operations, Denenberg and the team at the museum quickly shifted gears. The buildings open during winter months closed — including the galleries in the Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education with the exhibition “Creature Comforts: Animals in the House,” exploring animal forms in household objects and décor.
Normally in March, momentum is building for the spring opening of the rest of the 45-acre campus with its 39 buildings. Running the largest art and history museum in northern New England requires a huge team — 85 year-round employees, another 85 are seasonal employees and about 130 volunteers come onboard.
Spring at Shelburne comes with color and energy. The famed lilacs burst into bloom and students from around the state arrive with school field trips. More than 8,000 school aged Vermont children visit each year — roughly 10 percent the state’s schoolchildren.
With the sudden shift to closing the ground, Denenberg explained, one of the first thoughts was how to get the Shelburne Museum to homebound children.
“We wanted to bring the museum home to families, a virtual field trip,” said Denenberg.” We have great curators and educators here. We committed our bandwidth and people to these online exhibitions, and I think we will continue to be doing this in the future.”
“Color, Pattern Whimsy, Scale” and “American Stories” draw on objects in the museum’s permanent collections, collections with more than 150,000 objects in all. Both exhibitions have four components opening online in alternate weeks. The first three parts of “Color, Pattern, Whimsy, Scale” are up now, with “Scale” opening June 4.
Curated by Kory Rogers, the exhibition takes viewers to diverse objects from Impressionist paintings to colonial furniture to duck decoys, each one with background and drawing attention to unique features. They are accompanied by recorded comments and more images from the curator or Objects Conservator Nancie Ravenall. Playlists by the Vermont Symphony Orchestra and Ray Vega carry the themes into music. Both exhibitions also have educational activities attached to some objects, including coloring pages and Webby’s Art Studio projects.
“People,” the first installment of “American Stories,” curated by Katie Wood Kirchhoff, opened last week. The 12 selections take the viewer through centuries — from John Singleton Copley’s 1760 portrait of Boston merchant John Scollay to abolitionists William and Nancy Lawson to Seneca orator Sa-go-ye-wat-ha to Patty Yoder’s “H is for Hannah and Sarah, a Civil Union, 2000.”
“While represented in many forms, from paintings to textiles to a locomotive and steamship, ‘American Stories’ reflects on the ingenuity, creativity and skill of artists and makers that offers a look back while also sending a hopeful message about the future,” said Kirchhoff.
With the online exhibitions, Kirchhoff noted, the Shelburne team endeavors to bring together the experience of being at the museum and experiences that cannot necessarily be had in person.
“When you visit the museum you can let your imagination run wild with all the buildings and objects. Some are more traditional, some more evocative. There’s a great variety of experience when you’re on campus. We wanted to create that online,” Kirchhoff said.
She also noted that through the online exhibition, they can bring together “things that we can’t fit into a gallery — a train, a ship, a lighthouse, these iconic things we have on campus.”
In an online exhibition, viewers can delve into layers of the individual pieces and their connections to each other. For example, in the upcoming “American Stories” section on “Travel” viewers go into salons and decks of the steamship “Ticonderoga.”
The online exhibitions also give curators the opportunity to show delicate pieces that may be damaged by display.
“American Stories” installments of “Home” and “Community” will open on June 11 and 25, respectively.
Shelburne Museum had been expanding its digital engagement before COVID-19, Denenberg noted, but with the unexpected changes, they leapt in. Daily postings on Facebook take viewers to sights and sounds on the campus including lilac updates, fun facts about the museum, close looks at objects. The blog on the website features articles from museum staff — from Suzanne Zaner’s electric fan collection to Carolyn Bauer’s quilt pattern inspired apple pie. The museum has just announced an Instagram collaboration with the Crocker, Philbrook and Joslyn Museums.
“Remote engagement will stay with us as an important tool in communicating with audiences,” Denenberg said. “No one thought that we’d be doing this now, but I am very proud and pleased.”