By Joanne Calhoun
Shelburne Museum’s marvelous collection of decoys opened on Nov. 21. Thirteen species of birds – gaggles of geese, rafts of ducks and a bevy of swans are so well displayed that you feel the beauty and grace of these birds immediately. The two tones of a greyish-green on the walls and displays create a feeling of being outdoors between sky and water. The extremely subtle vinyl cutouts of birds in flight add to this feeling.
After almost two years in storage, 80 of the Shelburne Museum’s best decoys from its permanent collection are on display in the Diana and John Colgate Gallery of the Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education from Nov. 21 until May 1. The entire collection, which contains around 1,000 pieces, has been in storage while the Dorset House, its permanent home, is undergoing renovation with the support of a National Endowment for the Humanities grant. This collection is viewed as one of the finest in the country, and the current exhibit is meant to give visitors a taste of what is to come in the spring of 2017 when the Dorset House reopens.
Because this is the first time these decoys have been displayed in a real gallery space, the curator, Kory Rogers, has been able to focus more closely on each bird and find new ways to display them. He chose to use rough wood shelves as pedestals for some of the birds as a homage to the way Mrs. Webb originally displayed them in the 1950’s. There is a “swan lake,” part of a large table, which hints at a natural setting for the graceful swans. One of these, carved by Samuel Barnes of Havre de Grace, Md. in 1890, is one of the most photographed and viewed decoys in the world.
Not all of the decoys were of birds to be shot, however. There are large egrets and herons as you enter the exhibit, displayed on raised platforms so that they are on level with the observer. These, and some gulls nearby, were designed as “confidence builders,” to create the illusion of a safe and biologically diverse environment, making naturally apprehensive migrating birds feel confident about landing where the hunters were awaiting them.
In addition to birds, there is a Nova Scotia “duck tub,” a rare piece readied for the display by the museum’s conservator, Nancie Ravenel. This piece was acquired in 1984, but has never before been on display. There is also a hunting skiff with a very unsportsmanlike punt gun.
Seeing these old decoys is an education in the form and reinforces the feeling that these carvers were artists in every sense of the word: artists who showed infinite care, individual style and talent and who produced great beauty.