Historical Society museum reopens after renovation

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(Host) The Vermont Historical Society’s renovated museum opens Saturday at the Pavilion Building in Montpelier. The museum’s new exhibition is an ambitious attempt to capture four centuries of Vermont history.

VPR’s Steve Zind toured the new exhibit with historical society curator Jackie Calder.

(Calder) “Once you come in the front door, you see the Catamount…”

(Zind) Just inside the front door of the Pavilion you’re met by the unnerving stare of a familiar fixture from the old historical society exhibit. The last Catamount shot in Vermont.

Beyond the cat’s glass cage, is a renovated space dramatically different from the old museum that closed two and a half years ago. Curator Jackie Caldor.

(Calder) “What will strike them here as the most different are the sets…”

(Zind) The sets are similar to theater sets – painted with murals and furnished with objects from the 20,000 artifacts in the historical society’s collection. Each set is designed to capture the feel of a different era of Vermont history. And each connects to the exhibit’s theme: Vermont’s motto of Freedom and Unity.

(Calder) “And then keeping that in mind, we framed the exhibition using three questions that continually came up. That is, who is a Vermonter? What is wise use of the land? And how do we foster a democratic society?”

(Zind) The exhibit is not so much a collection of artifacts as a collection of stories about the ideas and individuals who have shaped Vermont. The objects tell the stories. There’s a story behind the trunk in the museum’s Civil War gallery.

(Calder) “The story of Dennis Doehig who’s from Newark, went into the service, volunteered, was a flutist. He died, unfortunately. His family always thought he died of homesickness.” (Music from exhibit plays – “But to fight for the Union got the best of our boys. For tell me what use will he be on the farm…”)

(Zind) Some artifacts tell touching stories about forgotten Vermonters. A little red dress that hangs in one set belonged to a four year old girl from Barnet named Phebe Gilfillan. She died 1842.

(Calder) “Her mother had gone out to take care of a family who had gotten sick. Apparently it was a contagious disease called canker rash, which I believe was a form of scarlet fever. She brought that back into her family and two of her daughters and a son died.”

(Zind) The exhibit also deals with the big themes and ideas that have changed Vermont: Agriculture, industry, roads and railroads.

The exhibit isn’t concerned only with what we know about Vermont history, but what we don’t know. On one wall is a group of very different likenesses of Ethan Allen.

(Calder) “We wanted to get across the idea that there’s lots of myths that go along with Ethan Allen’s story. Incredibly for all of his fame, we really don’t know what he looked like. He never sat for a portrait that we’re aware of, so his image that’s come down over time has changed a great deal.”

(Zind) Among the sets is a room in the old Catamount Tavern in Bennington where Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys met to strategize and to relax

(Calder) “…card playing. There’s a reproduction pack of cards. I think people will find when they come here there’s a lot more interactive parts of the exhibition – technologically and also hands-on.”

(Zind) For the first time the historical society museum includes a small theater – made to look like the gallery seats at the Statehouse. A short film covers the political debate that took place in Vermont over slavery, women’s suffrage and civil unions.

The exhibit ends with a series of listening stations featuring the voices of today’s Vermonters: young and old, famous and not so famous, talking about their lives in contemporary Vermont. These people, our neighbors, are the newest chapter in the 400 years of Vermont history now on display at the Pavilion in Montpelier.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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