Interpreting Collectors

Most museums are defined by their collections. On the WPAMC class of 2018’s Northern Field Study, we learned of the numerous ways that institutions have accumulated their groups of artifacts. From the worldly souvenirs brought back by the East India Marine Society that formed the Peabody Essex Museum’s collection in Salem, Massachusetts, to the more contemporary assemblage of historically accurate pieces used to fill house museums such as the Royall House and Slave Quarters in Medford, Massachusetts, I found the most fascinating collections to be those accumulated by individuals.

Such museum collections allow us to study more than their objects, but also the person responsible for their survival and display. Two of the museums, the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont, and Beauport in Gloucester, Massachusetts, are unique in that a single collector brought together their collections, and those collections embody the interests and whimsies of Electra Havemeyer Webb and Henry Davis Sleeper, respectively. The Shelburne Museum is home to 39 buildings over a 45-acre estate that are brimming with Webb’s vast and eclectic collection. Historical settings are filled with assortments of Americana. Beauport, the home of Henry Davis Sleeper, showcases the interior decorator’s skillful use of historical architecture, furniture, and art to piece together handsome and quirky interiors.

Glass window display at Beauport shows off Sleeper’s penchant for designing by “color.” 

While not necessarily encyclopedic assemblages that allow for categorization and exemplification of their subject matter, these museums provide an education in the simple joys of encountering historical objects and spaces. They allow visitors to gain an aesthetic appreciation of historical material culture.

As a Winterthur fellow, I am intimately aware of the entanglement of a collection with a unique collector. Each time I wander through the collections, I learn a little bit more about Henry Francis du Pont’s taste and his interpretation of aesthetics and history.

Strong ties between a collector and their collection were clearly present at Beauport. Upon entering the house, I was immediately struck by the glass display window in the stair hall. The arrangement of glass bottles, bowls, and candlesticks in autumnal hues is a stunning work of art. While the objects were blown or cast by a variety of artisans, the collection as presented by Henry Davis Sleeper transforms the objects into something entirely new.

Standing in front of this display, I began to wonder if it was possible to separate such collections from their collectors. Could one stand there and learn about how an individual piece was made and used? Can a museum return historical meaning to objects removed from their historical settings and placed in imagined historical spaces such as this stair hall at Beauport, the Apothecary at Shelburne, or Shop Lane at Winterthur?

The apothecary at the Shelburne Museum houses a vast mix of bottles, jars, boxes, baskets, and even a prosthetic leg. 

The new exhibit, “Birds of a Feather: Shelburne Museum’s Decoy Collection,” provided an interesting response to my musings. Tucked into one of the many buildings on the estate, the exhibit interprets Electra Havemeyer Webb’s collection of decoys. This collection of decoys was established with a gift of 400 decoys from the collection of Joel Barber in 1952. While housed in Electra Havemeyer Webb’s museum, it is critically shaped by Barber’s collecting interests as well. It is a group of objects that represents the layers of individual influence involved in the creation of a collection.

These individuals are not interpreted in “Birds of a Feather.” By re-contextualizing the collection in a traditional museum display, the exhibit curator, Kory Rogers, has interpreted the objects by their methods of creation and settings of use. The painted wooden ducks and geese appear liberated (if only temporarily) from their associations with Webb and Barber. They seem to tell a complete story of the art of bird hunting that is facilitated by the collection – but not obviously shaped or restricted by what was collected or why. Yet, by collecting these specific decoys, Webb and Barber are both present for the aesthetic understanding granted to the visitor. The collectors remains present in the exhibition.

One of the display walls of different wooden decoys inside “Birds of a Feather.” Courtesy of the Shelburne Museum.

The unique museums visited on the northern field study prompted me to reflect on the ways in which collectors shape the historical settings and that narratives understood by visitors to their museums but the question remains, if collections define their museums, how do we then interpret the collectors?


By Tess Frydman, WPAMC Class of 2018




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