Getting the complete picture of Shaker history typically requires trips to Colonie, New Lebanon and Hancock, Massachusetts. That’s still the case, but for something nearly as good and a lot less time-consuming, head to Albany and the New York State Museum.
“The Shakers: America’s Quiet Revolutionaries,” opens on Saturday in the museum’s Exhibition Hall with a behind-the-scenes tour at 1 p.m. More than 200 artifacts and 60 historic photographs make up the exhibit.
“We have these three wonderful sites in this area, and we’re combining what we have with all of their expertise and parts of their collections as well,” said Lisa Seymour, a history collections technician at the museum who assisted exhibit planner Aaron Noble. “There’s a little bit of everything in the exhibit.”
It was Ann Lee who emigrated from England in 1775 and established the Shakers in America. The original Shaker settlement in this country is in the town of Colonie, and Shaker Heritage Society owns and operates the site: Lee’s burial plot and nine historic buildings.
The Mount Lebanon Shaker Museum in New Lebanon, Columbia County, includes a handful of historic buildings along with the Great Stone Barn, and the Hancock Shaker Village just across the border in Massachusetts includes 20 historic buildings. Both the Mount Lebanon and Hancock sites have research libraries.
‘The Shakers: America’s Quiet Revolutionaries’
WHERE: New York State Museum, 222 Madison Ave., Albany
WHEN: Opens Saturday and runs through March 6, 2016. Museum hours: 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m., Tuesdays through Sundays
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 474-5877, www.nysm.nysed.gov
Known for their furniture, architecture and celibate lifestyle, Shakers reached their peak in the U.S. during the 1830s and ’40s. While they continued to attract converts throughout much of the 19th century, their numbers began dwindling and by the 1930s, many communities were dying out. There are only three remaining Shakers left in the world today — two women and a man — who live together in Sabbathday Lake, Maine.
The State Museum exhibit is divided into six different sections, beginning with “Settlement in America, 1774-87.”
“Most people know about their furniture, but the Shakers were much more than just their furniture,” said Seymour.
“Our exhibit addresses the daily life in a Shaker community, and there are also sections on Shaker theology, their health, diet and education, along with examples of Shaker clothing and the various industries they were involved in.”
While they were pacifists, Shakers shouldn’t be confused with the Amish, who are characterized by their reluctance to adopt many conveniences of modern technology.
“I was surprised by their ingenuity and their openness to new ideas,” Noble said of the Shakers. “A lot of people tend to think that they were, like the Amish, resistant to change and technology, but Shakers were in fact the exact opposite. They were always looking for ways to improve the goods they made. They weren’t a stagnant society, so to put them in that niche is wrong.”
The town of Colonie site, often referred to as the Niskayuna or Watervliet site, drew to a close in 1938. Shakers were gone from Mt. Lebanon by 1947, and in 1960 the land at the Hancock site was sold to a non-profit that turned the place into a tourist destination.
“There are 10 Shaker museums across the country, but nothing like the concentration of Shaker history we have in this area with three different sites,” said Starlyn D’Angelo, director of the Shaker Heritage Society.
“I think the State Museum exhibit is a great thing, and I’ve been advocating for this type of collaboration for at least eight years now. I think it’s only natural that we would all want to work together because most of the large collection in the State Museum is from the Watervliet site here.”
Lesley Herzberg, curator at Hancock Shaker Village, is also looking forward to “The Shakers: America’s Quiet Revolutionaries.”
“Any time there is an exhibit on Shakers, we’re of course thrilled,” she said. “We were happy to contribute artifacts and to work as a collaborative team with the State Museum staff. The initial idea was to bring these three Shaker settlements, the first three in the U.S., together and talk about how this area really is the cradle of Shaker civilization. A treasure trove of Shaker artifacts, never before shown together, will be on display to help people learn about Shaker history, esthetics and culture.”
One of the artifacts on display from the Mount Lebanon site is a Shaker washing machine, patented by them back in the middle of the 19th century. The piece was originally built at Canterbury Shaker Village in New Hampshire but has long been a part of the Mt. Lebanon collection.
“It’s the only extant commercial Shaker washing machine, and it has never been removed before from our collection ever for an exhibit anywhere,” said Jerry Grant, curator at the Mt. Lebanon site and an active participant in putting together the State Museum display.
“I’m guessing that maybe a third of the exhibit are artifacts from our site, and that includes fragments of clothing worn by Mother Ann Lee purportedly on her voyage over here, and a tea cup she used at the Watervliet site. This exhibit has really been a complete collaboration, both in artifacts and information.”
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or [email protected]
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