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Monday, Mar 4, 2024

The Henry Sheldon Museum: A repository of Vermont history

Nestled in a pocket of Middlebury just off of Main Street, the Henry Sheldon Museum is often overlooked by Middlebury students. However, passersby should not be fooled by its unassuming brick exterior: the Sheldon Museum is a Middlebury jewel that would be a shame to miss. 

Founded in 1884 by Henry L. Sheldon, the Sheldon Museum is the oldest community museum — a museum dedicated to serving and preserving its surrounding community — in the country. Sheldon was born in 1821 to a prominent Vermont family, and moved to Middlebury when he was 20. An eccentric man, Sheldon became a passionate collector in his 50s and in 1882, purchased the boarding house he was living in to house his burgeoning collection. 

Sheldon enjoyed collecting everything from mummies to ancient coins, but his true passion lay in the preservation of Vermont history. Sheldon kept every Middlebury-related item he could get his hands on, including clothing, newspapers, books and furniture. As he explains in an 1881 diary entry, his mission was to benefit future generations by preserving the works of Vermont pioneers. From perusing the museum’s collection, it is clear that Sheldon’s deep dedication to Middlebury’s history paid off. Historians have even called Middlebury “the best-documented community in America,” thanks to Sheldon’s tireless efforts. 

Today, Sheldon's legacy survives thanks to the tireless efforts of the museum’s staff. Head archivist Eva Garcelon-Hart has overseen the Stewart-Swift Research Center archival collections since 2011. No stranger to Vermont, she previously worked at the Vermont State Archives and the Vermont Folklife Center. Many of Garcelon-Hart’s projects aim to highlight marginalized groups, such as “Charity & Sylvia: A Weybridge Couple,” an exhibit centered around a silhouette portrait of a lesbian couple believed to be the first artistic depiction of a same-sex couple in America. Garcelon-Hart’s recent exhibit, “Artists in the Archives Unseen Neighbors: Community, History & Collage” explored similar themes, inviting collage artists from across the world to select items — photographs, diary entries, newspaper clippings, and more — from the Stewart-Swift archives to create a collage that highlighted previously underrepresented communities in Vermont and beyond. 

On Sept. 8, Garcelon-Hart’s newest exhibit, “From Homespun to Couture: Fashion in Historic Middlebury,” debuted in the Walter Cerf Gallery at the museum. As the title indicates, this exhibit highlights the shifting landscape of 19th-century fashion in Middlebury, as the fashion norm switched from homemade to store-bought. The exhibit features a plethora of impressive artifacts, including shop signs from historic Middlebury clothing stores, photographs of Middlebury residents and 19th-century fashion catalogs, giving visitors a glimpse into the clothing industry and popular fashion trends of the time. 

Along with Garcelon-Hart, Allison LaCroix — the recently-appointed collections manager at the Sheldon Museum — has made an impressive foray into the curatorial world with three exhibits: “Variety Sew: A Sampling of Textile Tools and Devices,” “Stellar Stitching: 19th Century Vermont Samplers,” and “Recent Acquisitions.” A Vermont native, LaCroix is a Middlebury graduate who has spent the past 10 years working at various museums in the DC area, most recently as the collections manager for the Heurich House Museum. In her exhibit “Variety Sew: A Sampling of Textile Tools and Devices,” LaCroix deftly distills hundreds of textile-related artifacts housed in the museum into an intriguing retrospective on the various tools used to make textiles in Vermont in the 18th and 19th centuries — from spindles to looms to singer sewing machines. LaCroix’s other current exhibit, “Stellar Stitching,” takes a look at 19th-century Vermont needlework samplers made by young girls as an educational tool. LaCroix’s final exhibit, “Recent Acquisitions,” highlights the newest additions to the Sheldon Museum’s collection, featuring historical portraits, Vermont-crafted cabinets and more.

The newest addition to the museum’s ranks, Barbara Rathburn, comes to the Sheldon Museum after many years as director of collections at the Shelburne Museum about 25 miles north of Middlebury in Shelburne, Vt. In her new role as Visitor Services Coordinator, Rathburn is working tirelessly to reach a wider audience and bring more visitors to the museum. 

The Sheldon Museum’s robust volunteer crew, headed by President Lucinda Cockrell, takes on hundreds of crucial research and organizational projects responsible for keeping the museum’s mission alive and well. 

Although Middlebury may feel like a temporary home to many students, the Sheldon Museum provides a medium to connect more deeply with this unique location. Whether you’re visiting an exhibit or doing research for a paper at the state-of-the-art research center, the Sheldon Museum is a resource not to be ignored. As a community museum, it is  our duty to help preserve Middlebury’s history just as Henry Sheldon did 150 years ago. 

Tulip Larson

Tulip Larson ‘25 (she/her) is an Arts & Culture Editor. 

She also serves as an Arts & Culture writer, mainly writing for the "From the Archives" column that highlights an item from Middlebury's Special Collections each week. In her spare time, Tulip enjoys playing music in her on-campus band and exploring Vermont.  

Tulip is an English major and and Art History minor.