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Museum’s new curator hopes to ‘awaken’ new generations to richness of the past  

  • Reba-Jean Pichette, the new curator for the Shelburne Historical Society Museum, holds an old Sweetheart Tea House sign that will be displayed along with other Sweetheart memorabilia. STAFF PHOTO/DIANE BRONCACCIO



Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 31, 2018

SHELBURNE — New curator Reba-Jean Shaw-Pichette is peeling sticky labels off artifacts at the Shelburne Historical Society Museum, cleaning the objects, and placing them in new settings so that they “pop” against brighter, high-contrast surroundings.

“The old way of doing labels was putting it right on an object,” she explains. Besides the fading handwritten labels that were 40 years old, the adhesive sticks to the surface of the objects, ruining the finish. So Shaw-Pichette and other museum helpers have been carefully removing the labels and finding ways to talk about the objects without a big label attached and blocking the museum-goer’s view.

On Thursday, Shaw-Pichette, a year-long volunteer, officially begins her new job and continues the work started by former curator Elaine Parmett.

Shaw-Pichette, a museum educator at the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, for National Park Services and for the Veteran’s Education Project, has worked in this field for more than 20 years. But, she has a lifelong interest in antiquities. She is also a trained graphic designer and calligrapher who began her museum work cataloging George and Martha Washington’s artifacts at Valley Forge National Park.

While cleaning and rearranging the museum’s artifacts, Shaw-Pichette has also been unearthing things from the basement and storage places of the museum. For instance, two Civil War-era muskets are now prominently displayed in a section devoted to the town’s military history. Also, an old “Sweetheart Tea House” road sign is to be cleaned up and will be displayed with a table setting from this beloved, long-gone restaurant. A dark trunk recently displayed as a closed object is now open, showing the interior of a traveling salesman’s case for “J.H. Wilder Horse Harness & Trunk Manufacturer.” Other business signs for bygone local companies, such as the “Furniture and Undertaking” sign that once hung on the demolished Swan Building, will make their appearance.

“Part of the curation is knowing the items and then getting a feel for the things around it, to find out when it was in accession, how it was preserved, and does it have a story that connects it to the community,” says Shaw-Pichette. “The story is what makes the object worth keeping. As (Massachusetts historian) Peter Spang says: If the story isn’t with the items, the items have no meaning.”

“That’s something that really matters to me,” says Shaw-Pichette.

Items that Shelburne native Fidelia Fisk (1816-1864) brought back from Persia 150 years ago are now prominently displayed. Fisk was the first woman missionary sent to Persia from the United States. And, her collection includes exquisite handmade clothing and beautiful objects.

“She knew Mary Lyon,” Shaw-Pichette says, referring to the Buckland-born, Mount Holyoke College founder. “We hope to do a joint presentation with the Mary Lyon Foundation,” she adds.

Fisk also knew Amherst poet Emily Dickinson, and Fisk left behind many unidentified tintypes, which are antique photo images developed on metal. Shaw-Pichette said many antiquarians believe there is a “lost tintype” of one more photograph taken of Emily Dickinson in her lifetime, and she would love to find it in Fisk’s collection.

While working as a volunteer at the former Anchorage Nursing Home, Shaw-Pichette saw how bringing in an object, known to elders mainly in their youth, could awaken memories, enthusiasm and stimulate conversation. But Shaw-Pichette also hopes to “awaken” new generations to the richness of things to be found in the museum.

“I would love to do a program that collects oral history,” she said. One display includes all the advertising objects that local businesses once gave away to customers. There is a desktop lined with old yardsticks. And “nearly everybody gave away ashtrays,” she said.

Besides focussing on the collection and how it’s displayed, Shaw-Pichette hopes to secure grants for some joint projects. In the spring, the Shelburne Historical Society Museum plans to pair up with the Arms Library, when the newly restored building reopens, for an exhibit on  “Religion of Geology,” a 19th century book written by geologist Edward Hitchcock with illustrations by Orra White Hitchcock — a book preserved by the Shelburne Historical Society and housed at the library.

Along with the museum objects, those faded, sepia-toned labels, with phrases like “Grandmother’s butter paddle,” are also being saved and “curated,” to tell the story to newer generations about those who salvaged the items and why.

“History, and the preserving and sharing of it, is constantly evolving,” she said. “This is clear when assessing exhibits in a historical society. Many exhibits Elain and I began to refresh showed us the story was changing – that the narrative on labels was outdated or had lost its meaning.” Also, said Shaw-Pichette, it showed “that the people who had collected and preserved these items and their story were now part of our history.”

The museum is in the former Arms Academy building at 33 Severance St. The hours have been extended to Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1 to 4 p.m., with weekend hours to be added in the spring. The phone number is 413-625-6150. Also, you can follow the Shelburne Historical Society on Facebook and Instagram.