MIDDLEBURY – Some see history as an impartial examination of objects from a bygone era, their meaning buried by “progress” and the sands of time.
This was never the case for Bill Brooks, who has always sought to bring history to life.
Brooks ran the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History in Middlebury for only 10 of his 137 years, but his many contributions have had an immeasurable impact on how locals and visitors will perceive Addison County for many decades. future.
Brooks started as Executive Director of The Sheldon on June 5, 2012, after spending eight years as Director of Development for the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation in Plymouth Notch. On the threshold of his 80s, Brooks will soon pass the torch to the next steward of Sheldon, the oldest community museum in the country. He has seen a lot of history and wants to make a part of it, in what promises to be an active retirement.
“I think the Sheldon would benefit from new leadership,” Brooks said in a recent interview with the Park Street museum. “I certainly enjoyed my 10 years, but when you’re 80, things slow down a bit. I think a younger person with new ideas is very important.
It’s hard to imagine a successor surpassing Brooks’ many ideas, which saw him pair local artists, photographers, educators, speakers and other creators with a range of beautiful, basic, evocative and originals in the attic of the Sheldon for delightfully themed exhibitions.
In other cases, he and his colleagues have simply taken out some of Sheldon’s treasures from their homes in drawers, closets, and trunks to let them speak for themselves.
A Halloween-themed 2019 exhibit titled “Conjuring the Dead” featured spirit photographs and original artwork from the museum’s collections acquired by Solomon Wright Jewett (1808-1894).
In 2018, “Doughboys and Flyboys” marked the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended WWI. Museum officials combed through their collection and archives, as well as additions from private Addison County collections, to put together an exhibit showcasing the roles Vermonters played in what has been called the “War for. end all wars ”.
You will understand if the World War I exhibit was particularly dear to Brooks’ heart. It included family records relating to his own grandfather, Jacob Johnson Ross, who was a Middlebury medic when he joined the military to serve as a WWI flight surgeon in France.
In 2017, Brooks invited five renowned photographers from the Middlebury area to select and immortalize in their own way objects from the Sheldon collection that tickled their envy of “Focus on the Sheldon: A Five-Point Perspective”.
“Fashion and Fancy at The Edge of the Forest” in 2013 featured selections from the museum’s vintage clothing collection paired with nature’s unique, stunning and imaginative couture designs by Vermont artist Wendy Copp.
As the same-sex marriage debate continued at the federal level, the Sheldon in 2014 drew on its archives for an early 19th-century example of such a twinning. The exhibition “Charity & Sylvia: A Weybridge Couple” explored the relationship between Charity Bryant (1777-1851) and Sylvia Drake (1784-1868). They spent 42 years together, until Charity’s death at the age of 84, running a local sewing business while participating in local charitable and religious activities. They rest together in the local cemetery under a single gravestone as any married couple would.
The exhibit has traveled widely and the couple’s experience is recounted in a book titled “Charity and Sylvia, A Same Sex Marriage in Early America” by Rachel Hope Cleves.
“We were ahead of our time, within the current focus of museums on minorities of all kinds,” Brooks said.
One of Brooks’ personal favorites was “Pedaling Through History,” a 2016 exhibit that coincided with the 150th anniversary of the world’s first patented pedal bicycle. The Sheldon showcased Glenn Eames’ extensive collection of bikes to trace the evolution of cycling, while highlighting the golden age of cycling at the end of the 19th century.
BEYOND THE MUSEUM
While proud of all the Sheldon has to offer, Brooks was keen to encourage patrons to explore the county’s history beyond the museum walls. To this end, the Sheldon has offered a variety of tours – to local farms, churches, sugar shacks, gardens and other places of interest.
“The aim has been to allow the public to take excursions and see the different types of artists and architects who make this community what it is,” he said.
Art can be seen virtually everywhere in our area, Brooks noted.
“Every gardener is an artist in his own way,” he said.
Treasure hunts and antique auctions are other means by which the Sheldon sought to impart knowledge of local history under Brooks’ watchfulness.
He said his main goals were to improve the museum and increase public access to its collections. Both goals have been a challenge as there is not a lot of funding for small community museums.
Yet the Sheldon recently received three anonymous grants totaling $ 100,000 that will go a long way towards repairing the museum elevator and replacing the museum’s 28 window frames. Another $ 50,000 is needed, according to Brooks.
At the same time, the museum must take steps to protect its vast and valuable collection of textiles housed on the third floor of the 19th-century Judd Harris House. Moths were recently discovered in this collection area, and an infestation that, if left unchecked, could seriously damage an abundance of vintage clothing, uniforms and quilts, Brooks noted. He explained that the Sheldon and many other museums across the country are facing the same problem, which emerged as collections inventories were left unchecked during COVID.
“We are now looking to hire a full time Collections Manager… so that we can control this challenge,” Brooks said.
Moth damage is just one of the museum’s pandemic headaches. COVID-19 forced the museum to close for several months, with Brooks the only employee left behind. The staff dutifully composed emails, brochures and eventually switched to virtual exhibits until the museum opened last summer. So the pandemic has not been favorable to Brooks’ other goal of having more eyes on Sheldon’s offerings, but he and others are working on it. Part of the challenge is breaking down popular misconceptions about museums, including the fact that when you’ve walked into a museum once, you’ve seen all it has to offer.
“It is not the same thing, and it was not even before my mandate”, he underlined. “Having these various exhibits, two or three a year, that showcase both history and art and fill the halls of the museum, allows local visitors to come back and see new things.”
Brooks praised his colleagues, who helped him realize his vision. These include Associate Director Mary Ward Manley, Archivist of the Eva Garcelon-Hart Research Center, Accountant Mary Caron, and Taylor Rossini, Collections Associate and Grants Editor.
But many others are working anonymously, he noted. In 2019, there were 141 people on the Sheldon volunteer list.
“Obviously, this place couldn’t function without volunteers,” said Brooks.
He added that the Sheldon owes a debt of gratitude to the local businesses and institutions with which the museum has partnered over the years. Partners included the Independent, the Middlebury Rotary Club, the Garden Club of Middlebury and of course Middlebury College, which provided a plethora of donations, professional expertise, fundraising assistance (the annual Pops / fireworks event on July 4th), loans of historical artifacts and student interns.
Brooks praised the close and collaborative relationship between The Sheldon, the Vermont Folklife Center, the Town Hall Theater and other like-minded arts and heritage nonprofits.
When asked what he would miss most as the head of the Sheldon, Brooks replied, “working with my colleagues” and “walking around the museum and hearing people’s stories.”
It was an education that Brooks really enjoyed.
“I got to know the people of Middlebury.
AFTER THE SHELDON
His plans for retirement include continued research into folk artists, writing, biking, kayaking, travel and, of course, visiting museums.
And what about Brooks’ successor? Plans call for Zoom interviews with a number of applicants this month, with hopes of selecting a finalist to start next March.
Whoever that person is, they will have big shoes to fill, according to Lucinda Cockrell, chair of the board of the Sheldon Museum.
“Over the past nine years, Bill Brooks has put his heart and soul into the Sheldon Museum and has given himself 150% to see it become an even greater source of pride in the community,” she said. declared. “Our Board of Directors thanks Bill for the years of diligence, dedication and service he provided, especially his artistry and quality. We are thrilled for Bill as he looks forward to his retirement. After 137 years of service, change remains a constant at The Sheldon Museum, and we look forward to continued success and an optimistic future.
Journalist John Flowers is at [email protected].