Just outside the town of Shelburne, an affluent Burlington suburb, a modest purple roadside sign reading “Shelburne Museum, Open May 9 – October 31” stands at the entrance to a parking lot with sweeping views of the hills bordering Lake Champlain. The museum itself is not readily apparent. Through the fence surrounding the grounds one catches glimpses of a red round barn, a lighthouse, a covered bridge, and – is that a steamboat?
The first impression is less a museum than the oversized miniature golf course of a putt-putting giant.
It’s a wonderful place to take children; in addition to exploring the lighthouse (which protected Lake Champlain’s Colchester Reef from 1871 to 1952, and was reassembled piece by piece on the Museum’s grounds) and the steamboat (The S. S. Ticonderoga, which served ports along Lake Champlain from 1906 until 1953, when it was moved two miles overland to its resting place on the Shelburne’s lawn), there’s a locomotive and rail car parked at the former Shelburne Railroad Station, a working carousel, the old Castleton jail, and The Owl Cottage, which is filled with dress-up clothes, toys, books, and crafts.
That’s only a fraction of what’s on view at the Shelburne Museum, which encompasses over 150,000 works of art and Americana throughout 39 exhibition buildings and galleries on 45 landscaped acres. It’s exhausting, which is precisely why the Shelburne is such a wonderful place to take children; one morning at the Museum, and they’ll nap all afternoon.
For three years, I visited the Shelburne Museum only in the company of children. I saw the same things repeatedly – the carousel, the Ticonderoga, the Owl Cottage – to the exclusion of most of the collection. So I never had time to wonder: Why?
Why this strange assemblage of buildings – barns, a one-room schoolhouse, a meetinghouse, and a roadside tavern — mostly from Vermont in the 1700s and 1800s, which were transported to the Museum in pieces and reassembled?
Why the eclectic collections: a 4,000-piece wooden circus parade, over 400 quilts, 225 carriages, 400 dolls, 900 decoys, folk art, 19th– and 20th-century American paintings, and Impressionist masterpieces by Degas and Manet? The Museums’s website boasts: “Shelburne is home to the largest U.S. museum collections of glass canes, trivets, and food molds.”
I finally asked these questions over Labor Day weekend, when my husband and I visited the Shelburne Museum alone to see what we’d missed in the company of our four young children.
The answer, as it turns out, is: Electra Havemeyer Webb.