Shaker Museum and Library
all your work as though you had a thousand years to
live, and as you would if you knew you must die tomorrow." In their daily life, the Shakers infused their every
task with the divine light by which they lived. Their
beliefs directed hands and commerce toward their goal
of simplicity, utility, spirituality and perfection.
The true story of a culture and a
people isn't to be found in great and monumental works.
Instead, it is found in the mundane, the everyday and
the common. How their lives were lived, the implements
of their labor and the products of their commerce tell
the true story of a people. If nothing else, the outpouring
of Shaker craftsmanship, coveted today by collectors
and bid up to unbelievable heights by auctioneers, is
the public expression of their lives. But these popular
cultural icons tell only one side of this people.
What is little known is that the sect
that came to be known as the Shakers began in the Hudson
Valley. Their central ministry, now known as Mount Lebanon
Shaker Village, is to be found just a few miles from
the Shaker Museum on the western flanks of the Taconics.
This central ministry, now abandoned and a tattered
remnant of its former size, directed the sect and governed
its growth and slow demise.
As Mount Lebanon declined, the founder
and benefactor of the Shaker Museum formed a relationship
with the remaining sect members and began purchasing
and protecting the artifacts of their lives. All manner
of objects covering every aspect of daily life were
collected over several decades. This effort is now the
unparalleled collections on display at the Shaker Museum
& Library in Old Chatham. Objects range from tools
to toys, from baskets to pottery, from furniture to
ephemera. The whole range of objects used daily by the
Shakers in their pleasures and labors is available for
exploration and study.
A museum of such importance may not
initially meet with your preconceptions. It is not housed
in some great stone hermetically sealed building. Rather,
it is a procession of old barns, coops and buildings,
each space either set up as a recreation of a workshop
or room displaying the collections in as close a setting
to reality as possible, or set up as display space exhibiting
interpreted information educating you in a soft way
about what you are viewing.
The first space you enter in the great
barn is filled with furniture, those pop cultural icons
that we all recognize and admire. Boxes, a line of chairs,
side boards, chests, closets, commercial storage, all
glowing in their simplicity of line and purity of form.
Then you walk into the rest of the museum, past a room
with nothing but examples of heating stoves, past a
kitchen with all the pots and pans and utensils for
the preparation of their food in place. There is the
wood working shop, the metals shop and more, all filled
with the mundane tools and simple implements of the
For us, possibly the most spectacular
display is a room seemingly filled with dozens of Shaker
chairs, lined up and hanging, identified and displayed.
You have the opportunity to see the evolution of their
chair, the stylistic differences between manufacturing
villages, displays showing the techniques of construction
and the techniques of seat weaving. This most commercial
and yet now iconographic of crafts laid out before you
in the rich fullness of its subtle diversity.
What you will not see at the Museum
is almost as important to know as what you will see.
If you are searching for examples of legendary Shaker
architecture and buildings, you will not find it here.
There are no Shaker buildings at the museum, with the
exception of a small and insignificant single room school
house brought to the grounds. If Shaker buildings are
what you are searching for, you might want to go to
the Hancock Shaker Village located barely over the border
in Mass. from Mount Lebanon Shaker Village. There you
will find the famous octagonal stone barn and several
Shaker dwellings and other buildings. At Mount Lebanon
there is a small display dealing with the development
of the village and the "families" that were
established there. You can go into a couple of buildings,
none of which are of great importance and walk the road
and view from the outside what is left of the North
Family buildings, now occupied by a prep school
For anyone who appreciates great devotion
to extraordinary craftsmanship, a visit to the Shaker
Museum and Library is a must. Although potentially a
little dry for children, there is sufficient there to
capture their attention and hold their interest. Getting
to the Shaker Museum & Library is a trip up and
down two lane country roads, but the signage is excellent
and getting lost is difficult. The Shaker Museum &
Library is open from late April through October. A small
fee is charged and you are then free to wander the buildings
at your own pace. A well stocked gift shop is available
filled with Shaker reproductions and books on the Shakers.