Have you ever been to a museum that blew you away by the scale and their exhibits? That is what the Shelburne Museum in Vermont did for me. The sheer immense size at 45 acres and the eclectic nature of Electra Havemeyer Webb’s collections astounded me. There are 39 buildings with over 150,000 items, plus 25 of those historic buildings were moved here. If you ever wanted to visit an outdoor/indoor museum that will make you re-look at your own collecting habits, then read on for all the information you will need to plan your next visit to the Shelburne Museum.
Shelburne Museum Information
With the Shelburne Museum consisting of 45 acres, there is a lot of open space with limited shade opportunities. During the summer, when I was there, it was HOT! The only way to stay cool was to go into one of the buildings, take a break in the Cafe, or wander through the trees around the Railroad Station. Make sure to wear sunscreen or wear a hat.
The Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont near Lake Champlain (seven miles south of Burlington, is open daily from May through October and on evenings during the winter holiday for Winter Lights. Current Open hours are Thursday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Open hours may change so, make sure to check the latest here. Shelburne Museum is at 6000 Shelburne Road, Shelburne, Vermont 05482.
The Power of Collecting
What defines a collection? The dictionary defines ‘Collection’ in two ways. First, it is the “act or process of collecting.” The second is what I am referring to: “something collected, especially if it is an accumulation of objects gathered for study, comparison, or exhibition or as a hobby.” But why do people collect things? The reasons why people collect things are numerous. Some of them are to increase knowledge and learning. Other reasons are for relaxation or stress reduction. Most people collect for personal pleasure, which includes the appreciation of beauty and pride of ownership.
I don’t know about you, but I have been collecting things for as long as I can remember. Over the years, I have collected old hard-covered books, stamps, stickers, coins, magnets, and artwork from my travels. I still have stored away a collection of dolls (Avon figurines) that my mother started for me when I was a child. Other things that people collect are classic cars, jewelry, antiques, shot glasses, comic books, action figures, postcards, chotskies, dolls, matchbox cars, sports memorabilia, and baseball cards. What do you collect?
Electra Havemeyer Webb grew up with parents that were collectors of European and Asian Art. That love of collecting grew in her, and at the age of 19, she started to build her own collections. Instead of following her parents’ footsteps, Electra decided to pursue collections of art, artifacts, and architecture with an American flair. Electra was a pioneer and one of the first to recognize the art found in rural America. She collected American prints and paintings, quilts, textiles, decorative art, furniture, farming equipment, horse-drawn carriages, and so much more. Her collection grew so much that she started to collect 18th & 19th-century buildings from New England and moved them here to house her collections. Thus, creating a unique village-like setting in 1947, her collections could be admired and appreciated every day. Electra Havemeyer Webb wanted a place for people to engage with history through the stories from every object she collected.
18th – 19th Century Buildings
Electra Havemeyer Webb Memorial Building
The Electra Havemeyer Webb Memorial Building is one of my favorite buildings on the ground. The reason being is that this is where the French Impressionist paintings are displayed (read more in Electra’s Collections below). I absolutely love that time period, and I really try to find museums that have Monet paintings on exhibit. But, this particular building is more than a gallery for European Paintings. The building shows six-period rooms relocated from Electra and her husband’s 1930s New York City apartment.
This 220-ft steamboat is one of two remaining side-paddle-wheel passenger steamers with a vertical beam engine. Built-in 1906, the Ticonderoga provided freight and passenger service until 1954. The Ticonderoga transported local farm produce, livestock, and dry goods regularly, and during the world, wars ferried U.S. troops between Plattsburgh, New York, and Burlington, Vermont.
The relocation of this steamboat was quite the ordeal. They filled water in a newly dug basin off Shelburne Bay and floated the steamboat over a railroad carriage on special railroad tracks laid for this relocation process. After draining the water from the basin, it was moved across highways, over a swamp, woods and fields, and across railroad tracks to its permanent home at the Shelburne Museum. In 1964, the Ticonderoga was designated as a National Historic Landmark.
Colchester Reef Light
The Colchester Reef Lighthouse serviced ships traveling on Lake Champlain from 1871 to 1933. The lighthouse’s structure and the French Second Empire-style mansard roof was designed by Albert Dow, who won a nation-wide competition in 1869 by the Lighthouse Establishment. After its sixty-two years of service, it was decommissioned by the Coast Guard. Electra Havemeyer Webb purchased the lighthouse in 1952. Following the lighthouse’s complex dismantling process, while it was still in the center of Lake Champlain, it was relocated to the Shelburne Museum. Within the lighthouse, you can admire photographs and read stories about the lighthouse’s history and the tales associated with the move to Shelburne.
The Horseshoe Barn and Annex is where you can find carriages, sleighs, stagecoaches, and wagons. This unique shaped barn is assembled from several hand-hewn beams from twelve Vermont barns and stone from two gristmills. Over 225 horse-drawn carriages are displayed within the Shelburne Museum, which is considered one of the best collections in the nation.
I love finding covered bridges on my travels, and it was a delight to see one on the grounds of the Shelburne Museum. Built-in 1845, this double-lane covered bridge with a foot-path spanned the Lamoille River in Cambridge, Vermont. In 1949, Electra reached out to the Vermont Highway Department to see if there was a bridge worth preserving. The “Big Bridge,” as it was called, fit that bill perfectly. The bridge was dismantled and brought to Shelburne Museum. The Covered Bridge was the original entrance to the museum until it was officially retired from duty.
The large wooden horseshoe building is deceptively deceiving. There are not many decorations outside to give away the treasures you will find inside. And it is a treasure! Inside there are over 600 historical posters and memorabilia from P.T. Barnum, carousel animals, and a hand-carved 3,500 piece three-ring Kirk Brothers miniature circus.
But that isn’t all! Within the building’s curved portion, you can walk by 525 feet of Ray Arnold’s Circus Parade. This Circus Parade includes 112 miniature attractions from the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, Yankee Circus, Ringling Brothers, and Barnum & Baily’s Circus. As you walk along the corridor, you get the surreal impression that you are actually walking by a full-blown circus parade.
In front of the Circus Building, you will find a working 1920s carousel made by the Herschell company. Weather Permitting, you can purchase tickets to ride the carousel. Inside the Circus Building, you will see 40 carousel figures from a 1902 carousel by the Dentzel Company. Opened in 1867 in America, Dentzel produced the most realistic carousel animals. The three-row carousel on display in the Shelburne Museum carried twenty-nine horses and four chariots; three giraffes, three goats, three deer, a lion, and a tiger. All the animals displayed are still with their original factory paint, which is highly unusual as most carousels frequently repaint their figurines for maintenance.
This 1901 three-story Round Barn was relocated to the Shelburne Museum in 1985-86. The museum needed a helicopter to move the top portion from Passumpsic, Vermont, weighing over nine thousand pounds. Inside the barn, you can find several late 1800s sleighs and other horse-drawn vehicles.
This 1890 Shelburne Railroad Station was moved to the museum in 1959 after the service to the town was discontinued. The station’s inside is divided into individual waiting rooms for men and women, with the stationmaster’s office in between them. There is also a Freight Shed next to it to mimic a typical Railroad Station setup.
Rail Locomotive 220
The Locomotive 220 was the last coal-burning, ten-wheeler steam engine used on the Central Vermont Railway. Built-in 1915, its powerful design allowed it to pull passenger and freight cars. No. 220 is famous for its part of the special trains carrying Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. It was known as the “Locomotive of the Presidents.” Once the engine was retired from service, it was relocated to the Shelburne Museum in 1956.
Rail Car Grand Isle
The Rail Car Grand Isle was built in 1899. This private rail car was used by the Webb’s for commuting to New York City for business. The car’s mahogany-paneled parlor, elegant dining room, staterooms, and plush furnishings represented the luxury that powerful men in the industry were accustomed to on rail travel. The rail car found a permanent home in the Shelburne Museum in 1960.
This building seemed out of place for me when I compared it to the other property buildings. But as it is on the newer side, built-in 1960, it makes sense. The Beach Lodge and the Beach Gallery nearby are log cabins built to represent an Adirondack hunting camp. The cabins are set in an area surrounded by spruce, hemlock, and cedar trees to give it an Adirondack feel. Inside the cabin, you feel like you stepped directly into a hunting lodge. With stuffed animals all over and plenty of hunting trophies adorning the walls, this is a hunters paradise.
Other Buildings on the Museum Grounds
Some of the other buildings at the Shelburne Museum available for you to explore are the Dorset House, Dutton House, Old Stone Cottage, Vermont House, General Store, Schoolhouse, and Meeting House, among many, many more. In these buildings, you will find some of the 150,000 items in Electra’s collections at the Shelburne Museum, like 3,200 American prints and paintings and 1,400 wildfowl decoys.
Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education
The Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education is the newest addition to the Shelburne Museum. There are two galleries (2,500 sq. foot/ea.), an auditorium, and a classroom. When we visited the gallery, Sweet Tooth – The Art of Dessert was the exhibit. The gallery was sugar overload with many multimedia works of art by artists showing their relationships with sugar. Do you have a sweet tooth? I absolutely do!
The perfect spot to take a break and grab a snack or lunch is the Weathervane Café. You can choose from grilled-to-order or grab and go items all made with fresh ingredients, as well as your choice of refreshing beverages. I chose to munch on a Strawberry Crepe and a glass of freshly squeezed lemonade. Yum!
Weathervanes are another collection for Electra Havemeyer Webb. You can see over 120 weathervanes on the museum grounds. The largest weathervane in her collection is the Fire Engine. It was used between 1873-1893 on top of a firehouse in Manchester, New Hampshire. This weathervane shows how designers in the late nineteenth century were ambitious to make an impressive statement on the rooftop.
One of my favorite subjects to photograph is flowers, and there are plenty here at the Shelburne Museum. There are over 20 designed gardens throughout the grounds. You will find gardens dedicated to daylilies, lilacs, herbs, heirloom vegetables, and peonies. Flowers bloom the whole year, so you will always be able to find a garden to enjoy at Shelburne. The majority of the gardens can be found in front of the buildings. The Daylily Garden is at the Circus Building, the Peony Garden is by the Webb Memorial Building, and my favorite is where I found all the butterflies by the Toy Shop.
French Impressionist Paintings
My favorite collection that the Shelburne Museum has is the French Impressionist Paintings. I was completely awestruck by one Monet painting after another. Looking at the paintings, you might not recognize them as Monet’s work as they aren’t from his more colorful pieces. But, there is no mistaking his brush strokes. The other painters exhibited are Édouard Manet, and you can even find a Degas hanging on the wall.
Hand Sewn Quilts
Shelburne Museum has one of the largest collections of hand-sewn quilts. There are 770-bed coverings, including 500 quilts, 400 hooked & sewn rugs, and over 1,800 samples, laces, and linens. There are also 2,800 costumes and accessories within the Hat and Fragrance Textile Gallery. If you have any interest in sewing crafts, this is the place to visit.
The Bandbox Room was one of my favorites in the Museum. Electra’s extensive collection of 19th-century bandboxes, hat boxes, and fashionable hats were simply beautiful. The room’s design is to recreate the feel of a milliner’s shop, including a storefront window display filled with hats and bonnets on mannequin heads. Do you know what a bandbox is? Originating in Europe in the 16th century, Bandboxes were sued to store and protect delicate linen and lace collar bands. In the late 19th century, Bandboxes were lightweight luggage and used as stackable storage containers.
The boxes were made of pasteboard (the high-end ones were made of wood) and covered in decorative printed papers, reclaimed wallpaper, or lined with newspaper. The designs ranged from neoclassical scenes to depictions of contemporary people, places, and events. Manufacturers started to see the appeal of printed patterns that sensationalized newsworthy events, the celebrity of military and political leaders, and civic pride with local landmarks targeting specific city residents.
These dioramas remind me of a little dollhouse with so much attention paid to the details. I always wanted one when I was young, and finding these are always a nice surprise and a little bit reminiscent of childhood dreams. The dioramas at the Shelburne Museum are the masterpieces of Helen Bruce. She was a good friend of Electra’s and created these glass-encased dioramas for her. Mrs. Bruce’s dioramas are filled with 18th and 19th-century dolls decorated with period furnishings and handcrafted household accessories. She crafted these from wood, metal, and ceramic. Many of the dioramas center around a milliners shop, while others show domestic interiors and shop scenes, and outdoors vendors.
The Toy Shop
I almost guarantee that the Toy Shop will get anyone interested in collecting. You can find 1,000 dolls, 27 dollhouses, and over 1200 doll accessories within the Toy Shop. There are vintage train sets, fire engines, cars, and old wooden toys throughout the building. You can spend hours just looking at all the 18th and 19th-century toys on display, trying to find a favorite.
You have probably figured out that there is a huge collection of Circus themed items at Shelburne. Whether in the Circus Building or the Toy Shop, the fascination with the circus is undeniable. Electra Havemeyer Webb did a remarkable job at procuring complete collections to showcase the circus in its entirety.
Other Collections at the Shelburne Museum
You have to make sure to look everywhere when you are visiting the Shelburne Museum. There are so many little details all around that it is easy to miss something. So much so that people tend to keep coming back to this museum repeatedly to see what is new or find something that they might have missed on a previous visit. Interesting things to look out for are the cigar-store figurines throughout the museum and the artistic craft carpet stair runners. Electra bought her first folk art sculpture in 1908, a cigar-store figure from Stamford, Connecticut, and continued to collect them for years afterward.
Some more collections for you to explore are the 1,000 farming implements; and 5,000 hand tools that you can find in several buildings on the museum grounds. In the apothecary shop, you can find displays of 2,000 medicines and 20th-century medical instruments. Plus, don’t forget to explore the decorative art collection, which has 6,650 pieces, including glass, ceramics, pewter, and one of the country’s best regional collections of 18th and 19th-century painted furniture, which you can find in many of the historic buildings. With so much to see here at the Shelburne Museum, you might have to schedule more than one day to see everything. I know that I have not explored the museum completely and definitely want to go back.
Electra described the Shelburne as a “collection of collections” and “an educational project, varied and alive.” I would have to agree! The amount of creative artworks here in the Museum is staggering and impressive. And to think that one woman had the ingenuity to put these collections together and then share them with the world, what an amazing woman Electra Havemeyer Webb was! She is an inspiration to all future budding collectors out there. Where is your passion going to lead you?
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