September 28, 2011
The Shaker Museum and Library in Old Chatham, New York, housing one of the foremost collections of Shaker arts and crafts, closed this year. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that it’s moving to nearby Mount Lebanon, from 1787 to 1946 the most successful Shaker community in America. Now a National Historic Site with nearly 100 buildings on 6,000 acres, Mount Lebanon was damaged by neglect, fire and the passage of time; it twice appeared on the World Monuments Fund list of most endangered sites. It is closed and undergoing renovations, which will take years. Still, when the site finally reopens, the prized Old Chatham collection, begun in 1950 by John S. Williams, will return home to an authentic Shaker village in the wooded hill country on the border between New York and Massachusetts.
Those who’ve toured restored Shaker communities–like the ones at Hancock, Massachusetts, and Pleasant Hill, Kentucky –know that a feeling of lightness emanates from the “simple gifts” of the Shakers. It stems partly from the utopian theology of the separatist sect, brought to America from England in 1774, and partly from the clean, pure aesthetic of its arts and crafts.
The Shakers believed that paradise could be found here on earth, following leader Ann Lee’s simple dictum: Put your hands to work and give your hearts to God. When they did so, the Shakers achieved marvels: oval boxes, stone barns and meeting houses, spiral staircases, twilled baskets, homespun fabrics, slim-legged candle stands and ladderback chairs. The elegant, timeless Shaker style has influenced contemporary designers and artist worldwide like master furniture-maker Ian Ingersoll, whose shop is south of Mount Lebanon in Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut.
David Stocks, president of the Old Chatham Shaker Museum and Library, says an opening date for Mount Lebanon has not yet been set. But the organization will offer guided tours of the site in summer and special events.
Meanwhile, let the wisdom of the Shaker song “Simple Gifts” guide us ever toward the light:
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain’d,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be asham’d,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.