American folk art. French Impressionist paintings. Historic New England architecture. Duck decoys, circus animals, and dolls. These were just some of the some of the interests of Shelburne Museum founder Electra Havemeyer Webb.
She grew up in New York, where her parents, Henry and Louisine Havemeyer, were important collectors of European and Asian art. By the age of nineteen, she resolved to follow in their footsteps but instead envisioned a collection that would celebrate the arts of America. Mrs. Webb saw beauty in the everyday objects that had been part of American life for generations—furniture, pottery, quilts, weathervanes, and more—and filled her homes in New York and Shelburne, Vermont, with antiques.
When Mrs. Webb founded Shelburne Museum in 1947, it was at first a place to preserve her family’s collection of horse-drawn carriages. Before long, however, she realized that she had a rare opportunity to create what she described as a “collection of collections” and “an educational project, varied and alive.”
From the countryside throughout New England and New York, Mrs. Webb found historic buildings that would provide appropriate settings for her collections, and she relocated them to the Museum grounds: houses, barns, a meeting house, a one-room schoolhouse, a lighthouse, a jail, a general store, a covered bridge, and the 220-foot steamboat Ticonderoga. She worked with a landscape design team to situate them within a welcoming environment that today includes a lush gardens and enticing views.
Mrs. Webb created something completely unprecedented for her time: world-class collections in a village-like setting of historic New England buildings and landscapes; a welcoming and informal place for visitors to engage with history through objects that tell stories. Shelburne Museum has never been just about the past, however—not in Mrs. Webb’s time and not now. Just as she connected with the creative people of her day who were interested in linking the arts of America’s past to the practices of modern life, Shelburne Museum today offers new perspectives through its special exhibitions, events, and educational programs.
At the heart of all Shelburne Museum’s offerings are its endlessly compelling and extensive collections, which have continued to grow thanks to the combined efforts of dedicated curators, donors, artists, and artisans.
Video: Conservation of Folk Art from Smithsonian Museum of Art