CHATHAM, NY – In a previous life, the dying brick Victorian building at the bottom of Main Street in this thriving Columbia County village had been a sanatorium, hotel and tavern, furniture store, and car dealership. These were the warm-up actions for its latest incarnation: a permanent new home for the Shaker Museum, widely considered to be the most important collection of Shaker furniture, objects and archival material in the country. The museum, which is to open in 2023 and to include a new building, is designed by the architect Annabelle Selldorf, whose current projects include the expansion of The Frick Collection in New York and an extension for the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego La Jolla.
“Modern architects like the clarity and simplicity of Shaker furniture and architecture,” said Ms. Selldorf. “But of course it’s so much more profound. It’s about equality, sustainability and community, to name just a few of the values. The pairing of the two really appealed to me. “
The online collection is housed in somewhat dilapidated farm buildings and has not been on public display for a decade. The new $ 18 million complex will house a conservation and storage facility, permanent and temporary exhibitions, a public reading room, and a common room. Ms. Selldorf, who is something of a court architect to the art world, designed a series of glass links to connect the old and new structures. These open to a Shaker-inspired landscape by Nelson Byrd Woltz made of medicinal and native plants and a small garden of concentric circles loosely based on Shaker dances. Ms. Selldorf’s renderings, along with some outstanding pieces, can currently be seen in “The Future is a Gift,” a pop-up exhibition in Chatham, a village near the Shaker heartland of New Lebanon, NY and Hancock, Mass.
The new museum is the latest example of what William D. Moore, director of the American and New England Studies Program at Boston University, called “chills.” Perhaps none was more affected than John Stanton Williams (1902-1982), the wealthy New York stockbroker turned gentleman farmer whose passion for antique farm implements eventually led him to Shaker barns and then to communities where he held the encyclopedic collection of more amassed over 18,000 objects that form the backbone of the new facility.
Unlike competitors who bought with an eye for resale, Williams was a little nerd whose main interest in the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, as the Shakers were officially known, was their business and technological prowess. He befriended Eldresses and Sisters and collected key pieces from a religious sect best known at the time for shared practices including celibacy, shared economic resources, male and female leadership, abhorrence of excess, and the ecstatic liturgical dance that the popular name spawned “Shaker.”
The qualities that fascinated Williams most were the Shakers’ enthusiasm for new technologies and their economic self-reliance and business acumen. Items the Shakers made for commercial consumption included seeds in breakthrough packages, medicinal compounds, chairs, brooms, college letter sweaters, wooden buckets, and women’s coats (in racy red as opposed to the black the Shaker sisters wore ). In addition to the now archetypal furniture in original paintwork, including Shaker blue, Williams bought washing machines, fire engines, hand looms, mortising machines for making beams, bonnets and the contents of a forge, to name just a few.
The Shakers also repurposed familiar items – one of the most intriguing artifacts in the collection is a rocking chair from the 1830s fitted with wooden wheels to accommodate people with disabilities, and there is an early example of blue orthopedic shoes. Rather than focusing on Shakers as subjects of New Deal photography or as precursors to modernity, Williams examined their Protestant work ethic and Yankee ingenuity and approached his job like “an anthropologist documenting the decline of a culture,” said Prof Moore. He also garnered an influential community of supporters including Norman Rockwell, Eric Sloane and Zelina Brunschwig, the textile designer and chairwoman of the famous fabric house.
The museum’s exhibitions are still in their infancy. Maggie Taft, a visiting curator, said the permanent exhibit will cover the fundamental aspects of Shakerism, which peaked in the 1840s with 18 villages from Maine to Kentucky, but also the unexpected subtexts. The sect – an international Protestant monastic community – was founded in 1774 by mother Ann Lee, the charismatic illiterate daughter of an English blacksmith (a sample of one of her aprons is one of the museum’s most prized possessions).
Though the sect was known for gender equality, Ms. Taft noted that women and men were “divided in a way that resembled a secular division of labor” – with men working outside in agriculture and other duties while women worked inside. The exhibition will also examine the different generations of Shakerism, especially the third generation after the death of mother Ann Lee in 1784, when young women ‘encounters with her were manifested in drawings and texts that were considered “gifts” from the spirits .
The sleek, modernist furnishings the shakers are best known for are typically on display for their aesthetics. However, these pieces were not intended for individual use, but were shared by groups or men and women. Time has shed light on a pine wheelbarrow that was on display in the Shaker Design exhibition at the Whitney Museum in 1986 and that was supposedly used to clear land: research has shown it was used to transport medical boxes. The idea will be to go beyond the visual and focus on the human aspects of the furniture.
“The Shakers were radical in the choices they made about gender equality, racial equality, vegetarianism, accessibility, shared property, and pacifism – choices that were far more advanced than their contemporaries and things that we still wrestle with today,” Ms. said Taffeta.
The 30,000 annual visitors the museum is expected to visit will be a boon to Columbia County, where approximately 15 percent of the housing stock consists of second homes that New Yorkers typically own on weekends. It seems likely to spark a shaker tourism that would include the Hancock Shaker Village in nearby Pittsfield, Massachusetts, a living history museum with an archetypal round barn, baby animals, and goat yoga.
The Shaker Museum itself owns 91 acres with 10 Shaker buildings in nearby New Lebanon – once Mount Lebanon, the spiritual and administrative mothership of the Shaker communities in New England, Kentucky, Ohio and Florida. A centerpiece is the shell of the Great Stone Barn, a National Historic Landmark that was damaged by fire in the 1970s. Its ingenious three-story design – “a machine of a building,” in the words of Jerry V. Grant, the museum’s director of collections and research – was built into a hill and made it possible to pitch hay and manure to the cows below deposited by a railway system in a vault from which it could be transported to the pastures. It was an early example of sustainability. “You were there,” said Lacy Schutz, the museum’s manager.
Once the province of the Northern Family, as the community was called, the museum’s property in New Lebanon includes a still elegant granary that, like many of the museum’s objects, has the feel of the human hand, with pencil markings for commands scribbled on it Bar. The museum has restored walking trails amid weathered stone walls and is offering tours of the collection this summer.
Mr. Grant said that the Shakers themselves failed to understand the aesthetic obsession that continues today among collectors and imitators of Shaker furniture; they were simply trying to create a physical environment that would harmonize and not interfere with their lifestyle.
For the Shakers, material culture was not spiritual, Brother Arnold Hadd of the Sabbathday Lake Shakers in Maine once told an interviewer. It was just material. The Shakers “were the smartest Yankees,” he noted. “We are the ultimate capitalist communists.”
Visiting shaker sites in New York
Information on summer events at several Shaker locations, including tours of the historic site of Mount Lebanon and tours of the collection on selected days at Old Chatham (where the collection is currently housed at 88 Shaker Museum Road): shakersummerseries21.com. Guided tours are also available by appointment.