Purposeful Wrongness at the Shelburne Museum

The story that the guide told at the Prentis House at the Shelburne Museum sounded familiar. Wealthy Americans in the early 20th century felt their culture threatened by non-Anglo immigrants, so they looked to revive ye goode olde days when they were (practically) the only game in town.  At Agecroft Hall, a Tudor manor house from Lancastershire deconstructed then reconstructed in Richmond, Virginia, I learned that the Anglo-American response to southern European immigration was to embrace all things English.  At the Prentis House at Shelburne, I learned that “all things English” extended to their American colonies.

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Colonial revival was the hot thing among the rich and richer in the 1920s and 1930s.  The Rockefellers were doing it in Williamsburg, the DuPonts were doing it at Winterthur, Electra Webb was doing it at Shelburne and, slightly later, the Flynts would be doing it at Deerfield.  “With all those people vying for the same objects, was there a rivalry among them?” I asked the guide.

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“Well, they didn’t do the buying themselves,” said the guide.  “They had agents out doing it for them.  But I’m sure that it led to some rivalry.”  Probably intense in private but very gracious in public.  Electra gave Kenneth Chorley, director of Colonial Williamsburg, credit for being the godfather of Shelburne, and Henry DuPont of Winterthur, in turn, gave Electra credit for inspiring his collection.

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The Prentis House was a classic New England saltbox built in Hadley, Massachusetts in 1773.  When developers threatened to tear it down in the 1950s, Electra bought it and had it moved to Shelburne.  It’s named after Katherine Prentis Murphy, a collector, interior designer and friend of Electra.  The house was decorated by Murphy in the 1950s and filled with inappropriate high-style 18th and 19th century objects that she donated.

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Eventually, the museum renovated the interior, making it more historically accurate, but then subsequently changed it back again, to its original, historically inaccurate colonial revival style.  I loved that they did that.  A colonial revival narrative brings together all the aspects of heritage tourism that I find interesting: sociology, psychology and museology.  It wasn’t the first time I’d seen it, but it was the first time I’d seen it where it was done on purpose and was the point of the exhibit.  Oddly enough, I’d come across it again in less than a week, at the Warner House in Portsmouth NH, which has left its kitchen in the Colonial Revival style in which its staff decorated it in the 1930s.

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The Prentis House (along with the Stencil House, next door) is shown only via a timed guided tour.  The rest of Shelburne’s exhibit buildings are self-guided.

We went in and out of the back of the house, so I didn’t see what turned out to be my favorite element of the Prentis House until we left.  It was the front doorway, especially the bullseye glass transom above the door.  The guide had followed me out and when she saw me peering intently at it, she stopped to explain that bullseye glass is the “waste” part of blown glass, the part containing the scar that’s been left by being broken off from the pontil.  Two hundred years ago, it was used because it was cheap.  Because of current colonial revival, it is cheap no more.

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6 Responses to Purposeful Wrongness at the Shelburne Museum

  1. Nice post. I am keeping a list of all these places ready for when I get around to visiting the US east coast states.

  2. I love the clean simple lines of Prentis House. Ye olde pubbes in the UK used to have a lot of bulls eye glass windows.

  3. Kathie Shattuck says:

    While I appreciate museum houses that are furnished according to the death inventories as an honest look at how people actually lived during a time period, have to say I absolutely adored this house. Cannot beat the saltbox for room configuration, simple plentiful woodwork, and that iconic central kitchen hearth. Furnish it in fabulous, to-die-for antiques and it is totally compelling. So much more interesting than seeing the same objects lined up in a sterile, art gallery museum display.

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