Museum Impressions: Henry Sheldon Museum

November 21, 2019

During the New England Museum Association conference earlier this month, I was able to visit a museum in Vermont before attending sessions. I knew that I was going to arrive the day before the conference officially began so I looked up what was in the area. When I found out I was going to Middlebury with a friend, I discovered the Henry Sheldon Museum and decided to visit it while my friend participated in pre-conference sessions. In my recent recap of the NEMA conference, I stated that

The Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History is the oldest community-based museum in the country opening their doors to visitors and researchers in 1884. Their mission is to serve the public by preserving the historic memory of the Addison County and surrounding communities, heightening the awareness and enjoyment of their rich cultural legacy, and stimulating the study of connections between Vermont’s past and broader historical themes. There are three main areas of the museum:

The Judd-Harris House, built in 1829, showcases a wealth of objects depicting small town life in nineteenth century Vermont

The Stewart-Swift Research Center houses one of the state’s premier archival collections, documenting the history of Middlebury, Addison County, and Vermont

The Walter Cerf Gallery hosts changing exhibits throughout the year.

Before I entered the museum, I walked through the museum’s garden and then went inside for the museum. I first explored the Judd-Harris House with objects displayed to show what small-town life was like in nineteenth century Vermont. The first floor was set up as both a home and an exhibit space. When I was exploring the first floor of the museum, one of the things that stood out to me that I have never seen in a historic house museum before was an 124 year old stuffed cat sitting behind glass that was donated to the museum after the woman from Cornwall, Vermont who owned the cat had it stuffed by one of the students from Middlebury College.

At first, I was startled because I was not expecting to see a stuffed cat lying there in a case. The more I stared at it, the more impressed I was with how the cat was able to be preserved since about 1895. While I would not want to do this with my own pet, I understand why someone at that time wanted to keep their favorite pet around after its death. It also felt like a morbid time capsule that preserved what an animal that lived over a hundred years ago looked like.

I also noticed that there were at least three exhibits located within the museum. The exhibits I explored the most were Conjuring the Dead: Spirit Art In The Age Of Radical Reform, The Animals Are Innocent, Ceramics And Paintings By Dana Simson, and Whimsical Wonders: Fairy Houses From Nature By Sally J Smith. In Conjuring the Dead, it presents spirit photographs and original spirit artwork from the Henry Sheldon Museum’s collections acquired by Solomon Wright Jewett (1808-94). According to the exhibit description from the Sheldon Museum, Jewett claimed he had supernatural powers that made him able to cure multiple ailments and bring people back from dead. Also, he was a strong believer in Spiritualism, which was a movement that preoccupied many people in the U.S. before and especially after the Civil War.

The Conjuring the Dead exhibit displayed Jewett’s collection of “spirit photographs” in which he appeared to be visited by notable figures, including President George Washington and Prince Albert of Great Britain. He also associated with and befriended a spirit artist, Wella P. Anderson and his wife, Lizzie “Pet” Anderson (a medium), who worked in New York City and Oakland, California. Jewett acquired from them eighteen pencil portraits that depict well-known historical and mythical figures spanning many geographical locations and historical times that apparently “visited” the artist under the influence of Jewett’s presence. Anderson’s drawings are now mostly known from photographs, and the original drawings in the Sheldon’s archives are rare.

In addition to the photographs and drawings, it also had ephemera, pamphlets, and objects that provide a rich context to the rise of Modern Spiritualism. It stemmed from a number of radical religious and social movements, including Mormonism, Millerism, utopianism, abolitionism and women’s suffrage, many of which originated and took a strong hold in Upstate New York and Vermont beginning in the 1820s. This exhibit occupied two floors, and I found on the second-floor drawings of spirits including one of Jesus of Nazareth. I also noticed a table with a Ouija board set up in the middle of the room which was most likely set up for exhibit related events.

After I explored the Spiritualism exhibit, I noticed on the door trim there was a subtle sign to show the next exhibit. In the Animals are Innocent, there are pieces that are part of a mixed media/ceramic exhibit of colorful, boat sculptures and paintings featuring animals, by Maryland artist, ceramist, author, and illustrator Dana Simson. Dana’s goal through her art is to how animals are losing both habitat and food sources, suffering the man-made effects of pollution and wilderness encroachment, and are imperiled by fossil-fuel enhanced climate change.  Simson’s message she conveyed within her pieces was very clear to me, and I recommend checking out her pieces to see an artistic representation of the pain animals are going through because of climate change on our planet.

I was also impressed with other exhibits and interactive activities within the historic house setting. For instance, there is a children’s area where kids can both play and learn what 19th century life was like especially in Vermont. Also, there is an exhibit within one of the bedrooms called Whimsical Wonders: Fairy Houses from Nature.  Sally J Smith created fairy houses inspired by ones she made when she was a little girl; and like Simson, Smith considers herself an environmental artist. Her hopes with the fairy houses are to bring visitors back to nature, to invoke “a deeper respect and love for the Earth,” stressing the need for us to “reconnect with the Earth” in order to survive. One of the things I find fascinating about her fairy houses is the materials used to make them were found and gathered from the woods near her studio in Westport, New York. Located on shelves inside a closet behind glass, another thing I find fascinating about the fairy houses is the detail that goes into each house. There were no two houses that looked the same, and each one had its own unique character.

The last part of the self-guided tour was Henry Sheldon’s bedroom where a lot more treasures were found there including a set of keys laid on the bedside table and the Sheldon family crest. While I did not include everything I saw inside the museum, I strongly recommend seeing it for one selves and learn more about the history of Vermont.

For more information, check out their website: https://henrysheldonmuseum.org/

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