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Shaker Museum and Library

"Do 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 crafts.

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.

Specifics on visiting the Shaker Museum and Library were correct at time of publication. We would suggest that you confirm dates and times prior to your visit.
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