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Shaker Museum’s “In Community” Temporary Exhibition

August 26, 2020 4:42 PM | Megan Eves (Administrator)

The Shaker Museum’s temporary exhibition Shakers: In Community examines the different ways in which the Shakers forged equitable and inclusive communal bonds. This exhibition was one of many ideas generated during  an 18-month exploration into the Shaker Museum and its 18,000 items in its collection (considered to be one of the world’s most comprehensive holdings of Shaker objects and archives). The Shaker Museum’s collections have been without a permanent home since its galleries closed in 2009. 

In a Press Release, Shaker Museum Director Lacy Schutz stated, “Shakers: In Community is a reflection of the Museum’s mission to present the important and timely values of Shaker culture—community, inclusion, and equality—through objects from its collection. We are excited that this exhibition can serve as a small preview of how the Shaker Museum will be able to engage and contribute to our community in Chatham.” 

Who Were the Shakers?

Shakers were early advocates of gender equality, welcomed African Americans, practiced pacifism, and put community needs above those of the individuals. Shakers believed that society could be perfected through communal living, gender, and racial equality, pacifism, confession of sin, and separation from the world.

“When we think about Shakerism, we often think about these broadly practiced systems of belief and work ethic where you really have this diligence and real commitment to living in a perfect way,” said Maggie Taft, Curator of Shakers: In Community. But Taft notes that Shakers are still people and people aren’t always so perfect. “One of the goals of this temporary exhibition is to show not only how Shakerism was a lived practice but that people struggled and strayed within the lack of an individual identity.”

Elder Daniel Offord addressing the Salvation Army Band who were visiting the Shakers. Among the Shakers is a person of color. “We know that Shakers all over the country had members of color, there were not many of them nor not a lot known about them, but to see this photographic evidence of this multiracial shaker community is fantastic,” Maggie Taft, Curator. From the Shaker Museum Collection

Shaker Museum and Community

“This pop up exhibition was designed to be a way to reintroduce the Shaker Museum Mount Lebanon to the community, to introduce the community to Shakerism, and give the community a first look and reacquaint people with the museum’s collection,” said Taft. “Before this, the collection has not been widely available to the public, only through private appointments.” The idea for this exhibition began during an 18 month project funded by the Henry Luce Foundation’s Theology Program to explore Shaker art, design, and religion in partnership with the Shaker Museum. Artists, scholars, and museum professionals gathered to investigate these intersections within the Shaker context. “This exhibition is just a sliver of one of the ideas that emerged from this project that was possible and potentially uniquely productive given the current circumstances,” said Taft. 

During these 18 months, the group explored the Museum collection and spent time thinking about and discussing how to incorporate the values and spirit of the Shakers into the Museum’s mission and programming. “There was a lot of talk about what a Shaker Museum could be,” said Taft. “This questions emerged from the fact that the Shaker Museum is an institution that has existed for a long time, has an incredible collection of Shaker objects, artifacts, and archives which in some ways is the best in the country not only because of its volume but the Shaker Museum has objects from Shaker communities all over the country, not just one specific site.”

Another goal for this exhibition was to start the conversation about what a museum can and should be in the 21st century. “How can a museum be not only a place to be educated but a place to develop connections to really interact with and learn from and teach to,” said Taft. 

(left) Wheelchair made from a modified rocking chair. From an iconic object, the Shaker rocking chair, you can see the wheels that have been added in order to make space in the Shaker community for people with different abilities.

Museum for the Future

The Shakers were constantly working towards the idea of an equitable community and since Shakerism was something that people were not born into but rather opted in, there were always new people entering the community. “The Shaker community needed to navigate how you produce and operate and sustain this kind of community, and one way was constantly inviting people in,” said Taft. “As we are thinking about what a museum can be- an equitable space that anybody can participate in, which is what we wish and hope for, the reality is that there are lots of people who do not necessarily feel comfortable in those spaces.”

As the museum opens this temporary exhibition and looks toward the future with its new permanent building, staff is thinking about how a museum can reconsider how it operates so that it has more equitable and inclusive spaces. “This is happening not only in the kinds of objects that are on view but also the kinds of voices that are participating in public programs, in gallery tours, and all the activity that makes up a museum,” said Taft.

Taft and Shaker Museum Director Schutz asked what it would look like if you brought in other voices, not just experts outside of museums, but children or people who collect Shaker objects or people who were interested in alternative ways of living, similar to the Shakers. What if you brought them into the collection to look at the objects and asked them to identify what was interesting to them. What different kinds of thematic ideas would you find and what if you got these people talk to each other. “It’s an opportunity to see these historical objects in new ways,” said Taft. 

This idea was part of the original discussion about programming around this exhibition pre-COVID, and now with social distancing in place, will have to be altered. “We are now asking what does the community look like when people cannot be close to each other and cannot share indoor space with each other. How do we still have these conversations? More work needs to be done.”

“The one thing that I hope this exhibition emphasizes is the way in which history is not simply something that is in the past, but history is something that was lived,” said Taft. “When we are talking about the Shakers, we are talking about people who were wrestling with the world as it was and how to be in that world...committing and struggling with what it meant to be a Shaker. It can be hard to access when we are thinking about historical periods or people or religious groups and even harder to access the individuals who made up these groups.”

The Shaker Museum is currently creating a new permanent home in Chatham, NY. The Museum expects renovations to be completed by 2023. A $1,569,000 grant from the Empire State Development through New York State’s Regional Economic Development Council initiative will help support the building’s transformation into a museum and community cultural center. 

Shakers: In Community is on view Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays 11 AM to 6 PM until October 4. Tickets must be purchased in advance.

Learn more: https://shakerml.org/

Explore the exhibition onlinehttps://shakerml.org/collection/shakers-community-opens-july-17/

The Museum Association of New York strengthens the capacity of New York State’s cultural community by supporting professional standards and organizational development. We provide advocacy, training, and networking opportunities so that museums and museum professionals may better serve their missions and communities.

Museum Association of New York is a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit organization. 

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