Published: August 30, 2016
The Shaker Museum Mount Lebanon was recently awarded a $750,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation to create a publicly accessible electronic catalog for its preeminent collection documenting Shaker art and design and to photograph a portion of the collection. The museum’s executive director Lacy Schutz describes what the ambitious project will entail.
How many artifacts are being cataloged and what is the estimated time to complete the project?
There are an estimated 17,000 artifacts in the object collection and 16,000 library and archival items. There are an additional 23,000 seed labels. We anticipate completing this project by the end of 2018.
In what ways will making these records publicly available online help tell the story and preserve the legacy of the Shakers?
Simply making the objects available is the first step to raising awareness of the Shakers and their legacy, but having an electronic catalog furthers the mission in some important, less obvious ways. Easy access to the records and images make it more likely that curators outside the immediate area will use objects in exhibitions, and that scholars will study them, bringing the story to a much wider audience. Having an electronic inventory of the collection also allows us to plan for future storage needs and is the first step in conceiving of a new collections facility at the Mount Lebanon site.
Was available exhibition space a factor in launching this initiative?
The museum has limited exhibition space. There have been some very successful offsite exhibitions in recent years — the New York State Museum in Albany, the Farnsworth Museum in Rockport, Maine, and TEFAF Maastricht — but those were all necessarily limited in time and space. Putting the collection online allows anyone in the world with an internet connection to enjoy and study these extraordinary objects at any time.
Compared to some other institutions around the United States, the Shaker Museum is a relatively small one. How did it attract the attention of the Luce Foundation?
Discussions with the Henry Luce Foundation were already underway by the time I began interviewing for the position of executive director. I helped to establish a large-scale collections digitization project at my last institution, the Museum of the City of New York, and had worked there with Luce on a grant to catalog and photograph the City Museum’s silverwork collection. So the foundation’s relationship with the Shaker Museum got a boost because I was known to them and had a proven track record of success with this type of project.
Given their belief system, what do you think the Shakers themselves would make of this project?
The Shakers would have loved it. One of the most fascinating things about the Shakers was their ability to embrace and often improve on technology while still maintaining their core value system of communalism, gender equality, integrity in both their actions and their products, etc. The Shakers were also concerned that their legacy be preserved. In the 1930s–1950s, when John S. Williams Sr was collecting the objects that would become the basis for this museum, the Shakers came to know and trust him and they began to give him their official records, spiritual artifacts and other archival material. They had confidence he would care for and preserve those things so that their story could be told for generations into the future, and we are carrying that trust forward through this project.
Will social media be involved?
Certainly. Our Facebook and Instagram pages are already rich with content from the collections, and we recently launched a collections blog — shakerml.wordpress.com — that looks each week at a specific object in the collection or archive.
Besides the digitization project, what other priorities have been set for the museum?
In 2017 we plan to launch a capital campaign to finish the stabilization of the Great Stone Barn by installing a floor. This will allow us to invite the public in for events and performances. Also in 2017 we’re planning comprehensive programming to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New York State.
To what do you attribute America’s enduring fascination with the Shakers and their world?
We live in an era where the individual and individualism are celebrated and it’s fascinating to imagine a group of people who were completely dedicated to the needs of the community and worked actively to subjugate the self in service to the whole. They were radically ahead of their time in their embrace of gender equality and racial equality, and their achievements and innovations in industrial engineering, land management and agriculture are staggering. And then there are the chairs and the oval boxes and the baskets, which are the physical manifestations of the Shakers’ beliefs in perfectibility, balance and integrity.
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