Early Vermont Gallery to open at Bennington Museum


BENNINGTON, Vt. — At the Bennington Museum, the old is new again, and vice-versa. To demonstrate this, the museum is set to open its new gallery on Sep. 30 to house rotating pieces of its permanent collection.

The new exhibition space, named The Early Vermont Gallery, will showcase approximately 85 major pieces, and smaller offerings, reflective of local history from the days of Bennington's first settling and early years.

Its establishment is part of the museum's ongoing reinvention initiative, which began five years ago with the arrival of executive director Robert Wolterstorff, who previously oversaw a similar process at the Victoria Mansion historic house in Portland, Maine.

"This is a gallery we thought for a long time could be reinstalled and rethought in a deep way," Wolterstorff said. "In a larger way, we're trying to make the museum more exciting, more fun, and more relevant, and trying to rethink how decorative arts are presented."

The space, at 866 square feet, used to house the museum's decorative arts gallery, where visitors were accustomed to being welcomed mostly by cases of antique glassware. After initial conceptualization, its renovation, and reestablishment began three months ago.

Wolterstorff said the decision to go with an emphasis on the museum's permanent collection was deliberate, yet not without risk.

He added that it's consistent with the museum's desire to complete a timeline of local art history with three main galleries, which "began at the end of that timeline, with Bennington's unique connection to Modernism, as well as more recent visual art in general, and now will be complete with a fresh look at its earliest years."

Wolterstorff credited museum registrar Callie Raspuzzi for her deep knowledge of the collection and her skillful contributions in both concept and reinstallation.

"We wanted to make sure this gallery emphasized our permanent connection," Wolterstorff said. "How do you do this through highlights and stories? It involves knowing the collection and having a feel for which objects can tell a certain story, and that's where Callie comes in."

For her part, Raspuzzi, who has been at the museum for 13 years, moved around the gallery not just in her official capacity in accounting for every object in the permanent collection, but also as caretaker to a tradition that runs back in time about 250 years.

While eyeing the ongoing individual installations from a myriad of angles, she walked silently but with a sense of purpose, her white gloves never off her as she cradled one artifact after another.

Raspuzzi said Vermont's earliest European settlers brought the bare necessities for wilderness survival. The colonies of New York and New Hampshire both laid claim on the land. New Hampshire's royal governor, Benning Wentworth, began issuing grants for towns in 1749, and the first settlers arrived in 1761.

"As soon as they were able, Bennington's settlers built larger houses, acquired finer furnishings, and recreated the familiar culture they had been accustomed to in their hometowns," Raspuzzi said.

Raspuzzi pointed out the earliest piece in the gallery, a humble six board chest made by Peter Harwood around 1762 when he came to Bennington with fledgling family in tow.

Then, almost instinctively, Raspuzzi told a story consistent with the gallery's reinvention.

"This utilitarian chest is exactly what one might expect to find on the wilderness frontier, but only eight year later Jedidiah Dewey made a sophisticated corner cupboard and tea table for his son Eldad's new house," she said. "The fact that Bennington homes had fancy cupboards and tables specifically dedicated to the social custom of drinking tea less than a decade after the town was settled speaks to the rapid progress the settlers made."

But by 1825, Raspuzzi explained, vibrant growth ceased with the completion of the Erie Canal, which opened up the West with its flat, easily tillable farmland. This initiated a steady depopulation of Vermont that has continued to today, and its pace of life slowed.

"Today's quaint villages and forested hills give little evidence of the early boom years," Raspuzzi said. "By the twentieth century, Vermont had developed an appeal to tourists as a place that time forgot. Our Early Vermont Gallery reminds us of the bold and innovative Vermonters who prospered during the state's formative years."

Standing nearby, Wolterstorff agreed, underscoring again that the new gallery is one of objects and human storytelling.

"The Bennington Museum is using the strength of its permanent collection to tell stories of the people who marked the early stages of the area, and this nation," Wolterstorff said. "We're confident the public will find them, engaging, entertaining, educational and relevant to who we are as a people."

The Early Vermont Gallery will open on Sep. 30 at Bennington Museum, 75 Main St., Bennington, Vt. Info: 802-447-1571, or visit: benningtonmuseum.org

Reach award-winning freelance journalist at tchalkias@aol.com, or on Twitter: @Telly Halkias


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