“We’re going to visit the Sheldon Museum, one of the oldest museums in the state of Vermont (which) has an incredibly eclectic collection relating to Middlebury, Addison County and Vermont at large,” Vermont Historical Society executive director Steve Perkins said. “It was founded by Henry Sheldon, an avid collector, and so we’re going to go inside and meet Mary (Ward) Manley, who’s the associate director.”
“Henry Sheldon was a self-made man,” Manley said. “He was a renaissance man; he did a little of everything. He had so many different jobs and had so many skills and talents. He worked for the railroad; he worked for the town; he played the organ at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Middlebury most of his life, until he went totally deaf. He collected everything under the sun that related to his time (in) Addison County and beyond in Vermont.”
Perkins asked, “Was he normal for his time to be doing that?”
“Yes, I would say,” Manley replied. “You can definitely trace other collectors during that time. Actually, we have — when we were celebrating his 200th birthday last year — one of our exhibits is Henry’s (Cabinet of Curiosities). He collected a lot of curiosities.”
“It’s interesting that you would use the word ‘curiosity’,” Mike Hoey noted. “We were saying in jest on the way here, actually, that in some ways Henry Sheldon almost sounds like something out of Charles Dickens — specifically, ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’. We were talking about that.”
“Very much so,” Manley observed. “He documented almost everything that he acquired, so we still have little tags on pieces of clothing, furniture, you name it — where he has written a note on why it’s important or how he got it.”
Perkins asked, “Why is it all here right now?”
“I think he would be very pleased to know that it’s operated now as a museum and continues to be,” Manley said. “During his lifetime, he opened the museum in 1884. He was living in this house — opened the museum to the public, charged a little bit to come see his collection. It didn’t look like (how) it looks today; we understand there were probably lots of paths through his archives and you moved around to see all these amazing things. And he had displays in the basement and even in the attic at that point.
“When he died in 1907, there was a caretaker for a little while, and he did appoint trustees at the Episcopal Church to help keep it going, but it was not run continuously until today. It was in the 1930s that it was sort of rediscovered by some people from Middlebury College.”
“What does the museum do today? How do you bridge those — almost two centuries? A century and a half, I guess,” Perkins continued.
“Well, that’s a good question,” Manley replied. “We’re continually trying to have current exhibits, certainly, that reflect his collecting, and we emphasize his collection where we can — but bringing it into today, and I think he would have liked that because what happened when he was living still can reflect today in some way. We do have exhibits, both art and history, that use the collection in some way or another.”
“Can you tell us how people can visit the Henry Sheldon Museum?”
“Certainly; we welcome visitors Tuesday through Saturday, 10:00 to 4:00,” Manley said. “We’ll be open actually into 2023, January 7, then we’ll close for a couple of months and re-open in the spring. You can also check out our website.”