The Art of Collecting at the Shelburne Museum

Vermont’s Shelburne Museum, which houses roughly 150,000 objects and includes 38 architecturally diverse buildings within its unconventional campus, has long embraced its eclectic collection. The museum is often described as “a collection of collections,” and even the buildings that compose the campus were collected by the museum’s founder, Electra Havemeyer Webb, who relocated historic structures to the museum’s location for the purpose of displaying works that range from Impressionist paintings to quilts.

According to Shelburne’s manager of marketing and public relations, Leslie Wright, Webb’s “passion for collecting and pioneering connoisseurship of folk art” continue to lie at the heart of the museum’s mission and its identity as a quirky, decidedly unique institution.


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To celebrate the recent opening of the museum’s Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education, the Shelburne mounted the exhibition, Color, Pattern, Whimsy, Scale: The Best of Shelburne Museum, which has been on view since August and will continue through December. The exhibition explores Webb’s collecting practices around the broad themes that shaped her aesthetic and approach to collecting. While this exhibition marks a particularly clear celebration of the Shelburne’s collections, it is consistent with the way in which the museum’s collections and physical spaces have been able to make art “accessible and unintimidating while contributing to a great sense of wonder,” as Wright explains.


In conjunction with the exhibition, the Shelburne is extending this accessibility and sense of wonder beyond its physical spaces through a project entitled, What Do You Collect?. What Do You Collect? invites visitors and members to share their collections with the museum or to post directly to the project’s Tumblr. The project has been intertwined with the Best of Shelburne exhibition throughout the show’s run, including through a video of collectors sharing their stories and objects, which was played in the auditorium during the grand opening of the exhibition and Pizzagalli Center in August. This close relationship between museum exhibition and the display of visitor-generated content heightens the exhibition’s resonance with visitors, engages people beyond the physical space of the museum, and highlights the shared experience of collecting.


The project’s Tumblr and video feature diverse collections, including candy-themed pillows, comic books, and nutcrackers. These collections are celebrated and presented within a virtual, rather than physical, space, allowing visitors to engage with the collections in new ways and furthering the museum’s goal of making art, collections, and culture accessible and unintimidating. These new experiences are not confined to visitors – Wright remarks that one of the most surprising elements of the project has been the number of museum staff and guides who are “serious collectors – from industrial fans to Asian art to ukuleles!”


As a method of engaging with these staff members, visitors and a wider audience, as well as illustrating the connections between a museum collection and the hugely diverse practice of collecting, What Do You Collect? serves as a compelling example of the use of online media to advance a museum’s identity and mission. While the Shelburne Museum is known for its unique physical landscape and collections, this project illustrates the possibilities for integrating the museum experience with contributions by visitors, all while embodying the passion for collecting and sharing that has characterized the museum since its founding.


Laura Mitchell is the Plinth editor and contributor for the New England region and an M.A. candidate in Public Humanities at Brown University. She is on twitter @lb_mitch.