Updated: Feb 25, 2020
Whereas the conventional wisdom would have it that a museum is a structure used to house artwork, Vermont’s bizarre Shelburne Museum twists that formula by having the buildings as an exhibit themselves. Paige and I had been hoping for a strange museum to round out our Burlington road trip and the Shelburne fit the bill perfectly. It stretches across a 45 acre campus dotted with 39 exhibition buildings, 25 of which are historic and relocated to the museum grounds. This gives it the feel of Epcot, if every country in the pavilion was instead replaced by antique Vermont. The effect is bizarre: like a Wizard of Oz style tornado blew through 150 years of Vermont history and gently deposited a random sampling across a large field.
“I love a good gift shop” Paige mused as we wandered through the entry building: a squat farmhouse, it was perhaps the only building that seemed to belong. As with any art museum, the gift shop was a random assortment of anything vaguely artistic and appeared to have little do to with the vast majority of the exhibits. Dragging Paige along as her head snapped to ogle each irrelevant artifact, we reached the counter. Tickets were discounted as we were unfortunately visiting during the winter season when many of the exhibits are temporarily closed. Included with our admission though were the ample grounds and a few select exhibits left open year-round.
We exited through the back of the gift shop and immediately found ourselves struck with the overwhelming views. Stretching out before us were a looming variety of buildings, so to make the journey through the grounds more manageable, we decide to take a clockwise tour across the vast lawn. This first turn took us past the Round Barn, a squat silo that sits looking outwards from the lower corner of the property. Built in 1901 in Passumpsic, an inland Vermont town almost two hours away by car, the silo was folded onto flatbed trucks and delivered to the museum in 1985. The upper segment weighs over 9,000 pounds and had to be airlifted over via helicopter. It seems inconceivable that so much effort would be put in to transport this unassuming barn to the museum, but so many of the buildings here have similar tales.
Following our loop we next arrived at the carousel. Cartoonishly bright and stylized, it looks like the crew of a Wes Anderson film only just packed up and skipped town. Surrounding the carousel is the horseshoe-shaped Circus Building. Thin and noodly, apparently the experience wandering inside provides you with the feeling of traversing an entire circus as you wander the grand hallway decked with memorabilia. Unfortunately this exhibit was closed when we visited, but Paige and I did crunch around in the frosty grass surrounding it and found that our enjoyment was comparable to attending the circus.
Next was the railroad, a cluster of buildings surrounding the centerpiece, Locomotive No. 220. A former steam-engine in use from 1915, the train became known as “Locomotive of the Presidents” because of its use on special trains carrying presidents, including Roosevelt and Eisenhower. Nowadays it sits comfortably idle under a protective awning next to its accompanying station. The jarring sight of the retired engine lounging on a set of dead-end tracks pales in comparison however to the centerpiece that lays dormant beyond it.
Most people familiar with the Shelburne Museum at all probably know it by the Ticonderoga, the 220 foot long steamboat that sits majestically in a crater, looking somehow both marooned and ready to fire up and drive off any minute. Formerly a real passenger ship that served a route along Lake Champlain, the vessel was retired and moved over land in the winter of 1955. Its storied history aside, the visual effect did not grow less strange as we stood and stared at the gargantuan boat plonked down as if left by a distracted Sim City player, completely incongruous with the rolling pastures around it. Watching over the Ticonderoga is a historic lighthouse sitting dramatically across the lawn, almost as if it is there to remind the boat to stay put.
Further on up you reach a small village: a number of buildings are clustered around including a meeting house, apothecary, general store, inn, a number of family homes and even a classic schoolhouse. It is slightly spooky walking around the grounds here - even with the full awareness that it’s a museum, it still has the hastily abandoned feel of a small town under quarantine. Further back from this cutesy Chernobyl there are a number of other buildings as well - a print shop, a hat and textile gallery, a toy shop and a horseshoe barn. Maybe the most odd of all is the shaker shed, which despite its history still looks like little more than a community parking garage.
One of our favorites around the back of the museum complex was the Jail, where we tried to stage a photo of me being turned in. It turns out photos are hard to take with only two people and the end result looked like me dutifully volunteering to arrest myself. Not that I expected to remain captured for long: the impenetrable brick exterior was rather undone by the large open chimney in the jail’s roof. Across from the prison was a much smaller building of the same style. Although labelled as “Smokehouse” on the map, Paige continued to refer to it as “Ye Olde Juvie”.
Even after doing the grand loop of the property, we were still feeling restless by the time we arrived at the Covered Bridge. A real bridge that spanned the Lamoille River for over 100 years, the bridge is notable for several features including going almost entirely underwater during the flood of 1927. The 168 foot bridge now stands dry along the edge of the Shelburne grounds. Seeing as it is indeed covered, we decided it would be a great place for a surreptitious race. As we are ultimately very afraid of causing a disturbance however, we decided to stage a pathetic speed walking race to the end of the bridge and back (which I won, if there are any real winners in a speed walking race).
Even after several happy hours of wandering the grounds, we had not yet actually gone indoors to see any of the exhibits. In the winter many of them are closed, but there were still a few open for visitation. What interested us most was inside the Dorset House, another historical property picked up and plopped down onto the museum’s land, and the current home of the extensive decoy duck collection. I remembered my parent’s had several of these wooden ducks shelved in an ornamental cabinet when I was growing up, but I had always assumed they were a weird decorative choice and so was fascinated to learn some of the history and functionality of these fraudulent ducks.
We entered the Dorset House tentatively, not entirely convinced it was open, and were greeted by a gentle voice from the next room. An older man tottered over, looking as if he’d been alone here so long he wasn’t quite sure if he recognized what the human being looked like. To be honest, we’d only really come in to make fun of a bunch of duck statues and hadn’t expected any sort of educational value, but the gentleman was lovely and brimming with knowledge. He showed us some highlights including a wide variety of wooden ducks and a hunting canoe. He shared a fascinating story of a rifle that was banned because it was killing ducks too effectively and finished the tale saying “see, gun control is possible!” A white haired, eccentric liberal in Vermont? Seems we’ve found Bernie Sanders’ day job.
After a brief banter he told us to wander free and we began to peruse the duck collection, only for him to scramble back over a moment later and exclaim he had “just one more thing to show us”. This process of catch and release happened several more times and we were honestly delighted each time he wandered back with an additional duck fact to share. We couldn’t get enough and grilled him on his favorite duck, to which he showed us one with a flat face but an unnecessary complicated wing detail. Just as we thought we had thoroughly exhausted the hundreds of ducks on display, he showed us there was a second floor as well.
We could have stayed in the Shelburne Museum for a week - the grounds are so unique and the exhibits so extensive, but we were on a strict schedule for our next attraction and had to call it a day. Even with most of the buildings closed throughout the winter, the museum provides ample marvel for a day’s visit. We anxiously await returning in summer to see the bulk of the art though - it seems plausible we will have to move to Shelburne to properly see it all.
The Shelburne Museum is located at 6000 Shelburne Rd, Shelburne, VT. It is open 10AM-5PM daily.
Adult ticket prices vary from $10 to $25 depending on the season. For more information about tickets and current exhibitions, visit https://shelburnemuseum.org/.
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