The Shelburne Museum and the Costs of Collecting
The collection of Electra Havemeyer Webb, now housed at the Shelburne Museum, is one of the most wide-ranging—and at times, eccentric—collections that we have encountered on our field studies. From a 2000+ piece collection of circus miniatures to a full-sized steamboat housed on its property, the Shelburne Museum offers a fascinating glimpse into Webb’s collecting interests.
The WPAMC Class of 2018 poses for a photo outside of the Shelburne Museum’s Brick House.
Collecting was a major theme of the Northern field study, and I recently stumbled upon a quote that nicely summarizes the curiosities and challenges of the practice. Gerard Brown, writing in, “Turning to Art in Wood,” contends, “A collection is not a historical narrative; it is more like a large pile of nouns. How one organizes a collection… tells a story that may in fact reveal more about the story teller than about the subject.”
As we toured the Shelburne, one object I found particularly interesting in light of Brown’s quote was the woodwork in the dining room of Shelburne’s Brick House, Electra Havemeyer Webb’s private hunting residence, which one prominent scholar believes was made in North Carolina. The intricately carved woodwork was placed in the dining room for its aesthetic value, and visitors to the Brick House certainly notice the detail throughout the room. The object’s original context, perhaps in the parlor of a house in North Carolina, has been lost, and instead, the woodwork has gained new appreciation for its aesthetic in Electra Havemeyer Webb’s Brick House. Which leads to the question, what are the costs of collecting?
With a possible North Carolina provenance, one wonders what type of house this woodwork was in, who made it, and where the wealth that allowed the original owners to purchase the woodwork originated. These questions cannot be answered without further research, and, unfortunately, are not on visitors’ minds as they tour the Brick House. The original context has been supplanted with a secondary one, and while this new context is deserving of study, more is revealed about the “story teller,” Electra Havemeyer Webb, than the subject itself. As museums across the country have begun to investigate their own institutional history more, it is important to remember and study what is lost along the way in doing so.
By Trent Rhodes, WPAMC Class of 2018