SHELBURNE, Vt. — On the eastern shores of Lake Champlain, Shelburne Museum is one of the boldest and most successful experiments in museum-building I know of. Like the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, it is the material legacy of one wealthy, eccentric, and passionate woman’s vision.
That vision was in every way improbable. But just as Mrs. Gardner did not balk at the absurdity of installing a Venetian palace on the Fenway, Electra Havemeyer Webb (1888-1960) let neither practicalities nor philosophical objections get in the way of her uprooting whole buildings — not to mention steam trains, steamboats, and stuffed bears — from their wonted homes and installing them on the grounds of her Vermont museum.
Webb, the daughter of the sugar magnate Henry Osborne Havemeyer and his wife, Louisine Havemeyer, grew up in a Fifth Avenue mansion in New York. The interior was designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, and all around were great examples of French Impressionism (Louisine was a friend of Mary Cassatt; the Havemeyers bought Impressionist paintings in abundance), not to mention ivory carvings, Japanese lacquered boxes, and silk brocades.
Her own first purchase as a collector was nothing so refined: It was a cigar store Indian. She had seen it outside a tobacco store in rural Connecticut.
“She spoke to me,” Electra said of this first purchase. “I just had to have her.”
At the time she was 19. Her father had recently died, leaving her a fortune. And “she had a mind of her own,” according to “Electra to the Rescue,” a charming book by Valerie Biebuyck, aimed at children, about Mrs. Webb and her museum. (Webb’s great-granddaughter Elliot Bostwick Davis, chair of the Art of the Americas at the Museum of Fine Arts, wrote an afterword for the book.)
Electra’s collecting impulses were suppressed for a time as she carved out a life as a sort of Sarah Palin avant la lettre (well, sort of): With her husband, the polo champion James Watson Webb, she raised a teeming family, and took to hunting bears and caribou in Alaska and the Canadian Rockies.
Then, 11 years after her marriage, she began collecting in earnest. To her mother’s dismay, she favored craft: not just furniture but rugs and quilts, wallpaper, utensils, trade signs, dolls, farm machinery, decoys, and weather vanes.
“I chose the early, crude American,” Webb said. Why? Because, as Biebuyck reports her saying, “I loved it — I was not influenced by anyone.”
She bought a piece of property in Shelburne, and then — with extraordinary chutzpah — began to collect vernacular buildings to put on it. She had them transported from all over, sometimes in one piece, sometimes taken apart then reassembled on site. Houses, an inn, jail, lighthouse,blacksmith shop, school, log cabin, railroad station, and meeting house, as well as a carousel, covered bridge, and a 900-ton steamboat, the Ticonderoga.
The museum opened in 1947. The result, now as then, is nothing short of a triumph: a sprawling campus with exhibits connected by winding paths set among idyllic gardens. (A major construction project, now underway, will result in the addition of new galleries, classroom space, and an auditorium. The new building, designed by Boston-based Ann Beha Architects, will remain open year-round, and not just in the summer, like the rest of the museum.)
You may say you are not much interested in quilts or folk art, or in circuses, toys, dolls, weather vanes, or even in French Impressionism. But what is so remarkable about the Shelburne holdings is that the museum’s very layout tends to quicken your interest in everything. The homey intimacy of its galleries contrasts with the pastoral openness of the campus itself to create, as you make your way, a leisurely, accordion-like experience, the aesthetic equivalent of breathing.
This dynamic feeling for scale is apparent in the things Mrs. Webb collected, too, as chief curator Jean Burks told me. Webb was irresistibly drawn both to the Brobdingnagian and the Lilliputian.
In the Variety Unit, for instance — an early 19th century farmhouse that was in place more than a century before all the other buildings — one sees engaging displays of scrimshaw, pewter, serving platters, rare glass walking canes, painted porcelain jugs, dollhouses, and more than 500 vintage dolls, including automata.
Only after a while does one notice the lurching contrasts in scale: Webb did not merely collect small and ordinary-size jugs. She also had a thing for enormous English jugs, so large that they have to be placed on the floor of a small room, where they await intruders like docile Great Danes. She loved to place miniature dolls next to giant baby dolls. And she collected not only toy trains and train stations, but also the real things: an 1890 Berlin coach, sumptuously decked out; and an actual train station!
The most memorable display for me, and I suspect for many others, is the long, C-shaped Circus Building, which houses a changing display of circus posters and two of the most unusual museum exhibits I have ever seen.
The first is the Roy Arnold Miniature Circus Parade, a concatenation of circus exhibits carved and painted over 25 years by Arnold, a business executive with the Strathmore Paper Co. Made to a scale of one inch to one foot, the entire, scaled-down parade is still 525 feet long. It’s entrancing from start to finish.
The beautiful floats and wagons, drawn mainly by teams of horses, but also zebras, camels, donkeys, and elephants, carry giraffes, elephant seals, snakes, and wonderful storybook tableaux. Punctuating the carriages are superbly realized clowns — on bulls, balky mules, or stilts. The two clowns pulling four donkeys, each carrying a monkey, were my favorites. With a poetic concision Dr. Seuss would have admired, they are labeled: “Monkeys on donkeys.”
And then there is the 3,500-piece Kirk Bros. Circus displayed at one end of the same building. Intended as a present to the Pennsylvanian Edgar Kirk’s four children, the circus pieces were carved by hand using a penknife and foot-powered jigsaw and fastidiously painted over a 46-year period. Kirk stopped only when he died.
Shelburne Museum also has first-rate displays of weather vanes, decoys, American furniture, needlework, and all kinds of other folk art, from ship figureheads and trade signs to rugs and painted table tops.
All these constitute the museum’s permanent collection, which is 150,000 objects strong. According to chief curator Burks, about 75 percent of these objects are on display, a far higher proportion than at most major museums.
But Shelburne Museum also puts on temporary exhibitions, and this summer, the shows are first rate. They range from a display of vintage snowmobiles, stretching back to the days of horse-drawn sleighs, to an exhibit of quilts made by men (and boys), and a show called “Time Machines: Robots, Rockets, and Steampunk.”
The latter is sneakily captivating. It features toy robots and spacecraft, well-known characters from the “golden age” of science fiction (the 1930s to the 1950s), and an array of items representing steampunk, a genre that developed in the 1980s and ’90s and anachronistically combines Victorian-era clothing and technology with futuristic fantasies.
Some of the steampunk pieces are jaw-droppingly elaborate — strange meetings of cultish obsession and devoted craftsmanship. They remind you of something that the museum as a whole makes clear: that “craft” has never been limited by the bare requirements of utility. As an activity, it has always nourished — and in many cases been hijacked by — the strange, parasitic flourishings of the imagination.
The exhibit of quilts draws on loans from museums and private collections. It includes a quilt made by a recuperating Civil War soldier, and another, in red, white, and blue, begun by a woman and completed by her grand-nephew 100 years later – just in time to celebrate America’s bicentennial year.
It also displays quilts by men whose designs — which tend to be less convention-bound than women’s, according to Burks, who organized the show — were often influenced by their day jobs. For instance, rather than following traditional quilting forms of the time, a pink and white quilt by Benjamin Perkins, a bricklayer, adopts a pattern common in bricklaying. A design using 66,000 pieces by George Yarrell, a jeweler, creates effects reminiscent of faceted, emerald-cut stones.
Only at the end of my visit did I venture into the Electra Havemeyer Webb Memorial Building, which re-creates some of the rooms from Mrs. Webb’s New York home. When I did, I almost keeled over. A wall holding three superb paintings by Manet, a room of works by Degas, another room of landscapes by Monet, three masterpieces by Corot, an exquisite pastel by Cassatt showing Electra in the lap of her mother, Mrs. Havemeyer.
It took me four years to get to Shelburne Museum. But I can tell you with certainty it will be months, not years, before I return.
TIME MACHINES: Robots, Rockets, and Steampunk
MAN-MADE QUILTS: Civil War to the Present
At: Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vt.
Through Oct. 28. 802-985-3346, www.shelburnemuseum.org
Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed the authorship of the book “Electra to the Rescue.”Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed the authorship of the book “Electra to the Rescue.” It was written by Valerie Biebuyck.