Holding Up The Mirror

Billy Rankin, VP of Public Programming and Marketing

This is the fourth part of our behind-the-scenes look at the development of Local Economies, Global Impacts, a new exhibition that will open this summer at Shaker Village.

In previous posts we introduced three main goals that the team at Shaker Village keep in mind when developing any new exhibit:

  1. Tell a Meaningful Story
  2. Connect with Different Audiences
  3. Be Relevant

Today we’re going to dive into the third goal: Be Relevant.

A recent rendering for the exhibition Local Economies, Global Impacts.

Universal Concepts

Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile.” – Freeman Tildan

There are some things that all of us have in common. We all need water to survive. We all breath air. We interact with other humans. We all have some belief, or a system of values, that inform our lives.

Finding these common threads, or “universal” concepts, can build a bridge between your own experience and the experience of someone else.

Here’s an example relevant to our upcoming exhibit. I’m willing to bet that right now you are probably wearing clothes. (If you aren’t, let’s just keep that to yourself for now!)

Since you are wearing clothes, you are part of the textile industry.

Wool, linen and silk were the most prevalent textiles used for clothing and other needs at Pleasant Hill. The Shakers raised flocks of sheep for wool, fields of flax for linen and silk worms for their silk. They knew exactly where their resources were coming from, and how much was used each year.

Today, we are part of a global textile market. You probably don’t know where your shirt was made without checking the tag. It was also likely made in a place that you have never visited. And yet, we are still part of the same overall system, though on a larger scale, that the Shakers were part of. This will be true for every visitor to this exhibit.

Detailed specifications are used to design the cases, platforms and interactives for Local Economies, Global Impacts.

The Unexamined Life

Okay, so big deal. I wear clothes. The Shakers wore clothes. Is this supposed to be some sort of revelation?

Not exactly. It’s really just a foot in the door. The next steps are what really matter.

By interpreting universal concepts we are attempting to lead our visitors to two important considerations. The first is simply to take interest in how someone other than yourself has lived. This can require some level of empathy, and if the story is compelling and relatable you are more likely to care. Learning how to care about others, or at least take some interest in their lives, is a noble endeavor.

The second consideration we are guiding our guests toward is the examination of their own life. As I said in our last exhibit blog post – It’s not actually about the Shakers. It’s about you.

Many who proclaim a love of history enjoy the study of things that have already happened simply because they have already happened. There’s some security in that thought.

The more challenging, but infinitely more fulfilling approach to studying history is to actually learn from it. Not just names and dates. By learning the successes, struggles, beliefs and compromises of those who have come before us we build the mirror with which we can examine ourselves.

The graphics for Local Economies, Global Impacts will include reader rail panels, such as this example, that is still in progress, for the East Family Sisters’ Shop.

Local Economies, Global Impacts

Global markets are immensely detailed and complicated to understand. However, the basics of managing resources, production and trade have really not changed so much since the time of the Shakers at Pleasant Hill. In addition to the textile industry, our upcoming exhibit will tell the stories of the broom industry, Shaker mills and shops, trading routes, market places and Pleasant Hill’s business leaders.

When visiting the exhibit after it opens this summer, put yourself in the place of the Shakers. How would you handle situations they faced? What role might you play? When looking at your life today through this lens, do you discover anything about yourself?

Next Month: We’ll go behind-the-scenes for the fabrication of exhibit features for Local Economies, Global Impacts.

Local Economies, Global Impacts is funded in part through a Museums for America matching grant, administered by the Institute for Museum and Library Services.

Today in Pleasant Hill History

Jacob Glover, PhD, Director of Public Programs and Education

On January 24, 1871, Pleasant Hill took the step of expelling a family of seven from their ranks. Interestingly enough, this newsworthy note is intermingled amongst more practical concerns in a Shaker journal:

Trip – El. H. L. Eades started for South Union via Lebanon. See 13th inst

Expelled – The Morrison family from the Society. Minerva the mother & Henry from the West Lot, & Hiram, Jacob, Leah, Belle & Ginny from the Center Family. See March 7, l870.

Trip – H. Daily went to Lexington with two wagons, & returned the following day.

LTR: James Shelton, John Pilkington, Henry Daily, Francis P., Napoleaon Brown. Girls unknown.

As the entry reveals, this expulsion had evidently been in the works for a rather long time! Going back to review that entry from March 1870:

“Mon. 7 Sent Away – The Widow Morrison family – who came some time since from the Mouth of Salt River viz. the Mother Manerva Ann & children William J. Morrison, Jacob T. Leah Ann, Sarah Isabel, Mary Jane & Henry William Morrison.  the Mother & youngest from the West Lot.  The rest from Centre all went on board the Boat for Louisville thence to their home.”

That’s all the Shakers wrote. It makes one wonder exactly what they had done to be “sent away” and “expelled” during a time of general population decline at Pleasant Hill.

An Enduring Legacy

Jacob Glover, Ph.D., Director of Public Programs and Education

“Great architecture has this capacity to adapt to changing functional uses without losing one bit of its dignity or one bit of its original intention.

– Thomas Krens, former Director of the Guggenheim

As we approach the end of October and the 200th anniversary of the Pleasant Hill Meeting House, we have taken the opportunity to reflect on the both the history of the Meeting House and its continuing legacy and influence here at Shaker Village. As the quote that opens this blog post implies, the Meeting House has been remarkably resilient throughout the course of its existence and its many alterations since 1820.

When thinking about the original intention of the Meeting House for the Shakers at Pleasant Hill, it is important to keep in mind how the space was purpose-built to allow certain aspects of Shaker society to flourish. For the Shakers, the Meeting House was always about things such as unity, community, and faith. Of course, the Shakers’ religious beliefs influenced all aspects of their life, but the common worship area of the Meeting House was an extremely important physical space where the Shakers could gather on a weekly basis and reinforce communal ties, a shared sense of belonging, and strengthen their union with one another.

Special community events such as Illuminated Evenings, held on Saturdays in December, help continue the legacy of song that has long shaped the history of the Pleasant Hill Meeting House.

Given the important of these notions to the entire Shaker worldview, it is no wonder that the Meeting House held such a place of prominence in every community. When Shaker brothers and sisters danced and sang with each other, they cemented bonds that not only held together the community at Pleasant Hill — these actions provided a shared identity for Shakers all across America who danced the same dances and sang the same songs in similar buildings from Maine to Ohio.

The materials used to construct the Meeting House tie the building to centuries of history in central Kentucky. These trusses, seen in the attic, allow for the open space on the first floor that were key to Shaker worship.

At Shaker Village today, the Meeting House retains much of its original charm and capacity to inspire, even if the form and shape of that inspiration holds different meanings for us than it did for the Shakers. The sense of belonging and togetherness that was so important to the Shakers remains present in our daily Shaker music programs and special events like the Community Sing and Illuminated Evenings, as building community through song is still as strong an influence as ever.

The solidity and permanence of the Meeting House is also reminder of the power of place in a modern world that seems to become more transient and transparent by the day. Walking in the attic, the massive king posts and trusses are reminders of the ancient forests of central Kentucky and the long years that the oak trees graced the Bluegrass before they were hewed by the Shakers to build such a lasting testament to their architectural skills and their faith.

At Pleasant Hill, we remain as committed as ever to inspiring our local communities and state by sharing the legacies of the Kentucky Shakers, and the Meeting House will continue to be an integral part of that mission for our organization.

Join us at Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill on Saturday, October 31, 2020, for the 200th Anniversary celebration of the Meeting House. Special tours of the Meeting House focusing on Shaker song, dance and the building’s architecture will be available with purchase of admission.

Curses and Serendipity: Artifact Homecomings

Laura Webb, Program Specialist

Warning The following post shares the stories of historic artifacts that have, in the past, “disappeared” from Shaker Village and returned in unusual ways. The management of Shaker Village would like our readers to know that we have excellent security and oversight of our artifacts!

Howdy, everyone! Welcome back to another installment of my dispatches from the SVPH archival digitization project.

As many of you know, there is a lot of information we can glean from closely observing an object or artifact; but in most cases, this can’t tell us everything we want to know about it. That’s where our object files come in! When our digital catalog goes live, you will of course see photographs, descriptions, and measurements of the objects. You will also often see:

  • Cross-references to related items (such as library holdings, archival documents, photographs, and even other objects),
  • Examination notes by experts in a relevant field,
  • Publications or exhibits that mentioned or featured the object, and/or
  • Information that accompanied the object on its journey to our institution.
Black and white photograph of white oak basket, taken soon after being accessioned.

While checking over these entries, I have found many interesting and informative notes. I have also found several that are entertaining as all get-out. Guess what? Sometimes an object’s story doesn’t end at our threshold! So far, I’ve found at least two artifacts that have “wandered” a little further from home than they should have.

First is this basket (accession # 67.4.4), which first came to the village as a donation in 1967. Sometime in the 1970s-80s, it, ahem, “walked off.” This note explains how it found its way home in 2003:

“The sender had visited Pleasant Hill 12/18/2003 and told how she had ‘met a 92-year-old lady at a garage sale, who said a man who lived in her house for years; was in possession of this basket which apparently belongs to you—and she asked me if I’d return it to you.”

A roundabout journey, but effective! Of course, it begs the question of how the 92-year-old woman’s tenant acquired the basket in the first place, doesn’t it?

This bench has a 1 ½-inch-thick seat, constructed of a single piece of wood. Impressive!

Second is this bench (accession # 61.4.386), which was part of the initial Pleasant Hill property purchase in 1961—meaning it’s been a fixture of our organization from the beginning. Pre-restoration photos show it living in the Trustee’s Office; post-restoration, it resided in the Carpenter’s Shop (currently our Welcome Center). However, in the mid-1970s, it…you guessed it, “walked off.”

Photograph depicting the bench in the 1839 Trustees’ Office, pre-restoration.

On May 22nd, 2005, between 11:00 and 11:45 AM, it appeared in front of our administrative building with the following note:

“I am returning this to its rightful owner…It was taken by a former employee about 30 years ago. (NOT ME.) It eventually ended up in my possession. Now I give it back and pray that the “Curse” will cease on me and everyone associated with its removal from Shakertown. Thank you.”

For reference, please keep in mind that this bench is 8 ½ feet long. I have no idea how someone left the village with it unnoticed, but as they say, it was a different time. I also wonder what happened to make this person believe the bench was cursed.

Don’t try it at home, kids! I’m not saying a mysterious Shaker-themed curse will befall you if you steal from us, but I’m also not not saying that. Best not to risk it, right?

A Gift to be Simple

Maggie McAdams, Assistant Program Manager

“’Tis a gift to be simple, ‘tis a gift to be free, ‘tis a gift to come down where you ought to be…” 

The effortless spiral of The Trustees’ Office staircase, Pleasant Hill, KY.

Simplicity has become synonymous with the Shaker experience – as has the song Simple Gifts, emphasis on simple.  The most obvious visible manifestation of the Shaker legacy of simplicity can be seen today in the form and function of their architecture and furniture, but in reality this value infused all aspects of the Shaker’s life. What we see, however, was far from simple to achieve.

Today, the word simple has come to mean plain or easily done, basic or uncomplicated, but for the Shakers, it meant something so much more.    

The Shakers considered simplicity to be a sacred gift, one that members worked their entire lives to achieve.  Simplicity to the shakers meant modesty and humility, and was a constant reminder to focus on faith and their spiritual path.

In music written for Shaker worship, simplicity is often portrayed as a willow tree, humbly bowing, and bending, and being open to accept God’s gifts.  

“I will bow and be simple, I will bow and be free, I will bow and be humble, yea, bow like the willow tree.”

Shaker side chairs hang on pegs to reduce clutter, and to keep the space clean, Centre Family Dwelling, Pleasant Hill, KY.

Themes of simplicity can also be found in the Millennial Laws, the rules that the Shakers lived by. Upon entering the Pleasant Hill community, members deeded their personal possessions to the society, and were given modest goods and attire to meet their basic needs. 

All members lived communally and supported one another.  To live simply meant to shed all excess and focus on the inward path of the soul, rather than on pride and vanity and material goods.

Hand labor was thought to be good for the soul, and craftsmanship in this way became a symbol for moving closer to God.  “Put your hands to work, and your hearts to God.”

Detail view of the built-in dresser on the third floor of Centre Family Dwelling,
Pleasant Hill, KY.

To create a perfect piece of furniture was not an aesthetic pursuit, but a spiritual one.  Craftsmanship was not perfected for personal gain or glory, and the difficult process helped to teach members humility.  The Millennial Laws reiterated this by prohibiting signatures and unnecessary markings on items of manufacture so that the end product would not distract from the process and utility of the piece. 

The spiral staircase winds up three floors, and ends with a dome of light brought in by the dormer windows.

The Shakers wasted no design detail, and even their structures were built based upon functionality.  As a result they appear quite simple.  The peg lined walls, the large built-in cupboards, and the spacious floors of the dwelling houses – it took thoughtful design to create such orderly and simple spaces.

At Pleasant Hill, the dual spiral staircase in the Trustees’ Office is the perfect juxtaposition between the simple and the complex, as what appears to flow upward with such ease hides the intricacy that lies just beneath the surface.

Accessible through a stairwell door, the heavy structure that supports the staircase is an impressive work of engineering. The technical elements (like the massive timbers and the cantilevered steps), however, are concealed in favor of the simple and graceful free flowing aesthetic.  What we are left with in the upward movement of the staircase is the embodiment of simplicity, of elevating the spirit toward the light. 

Hidden beneath the simple exterior are the structural components of the spiral staircase, Trustees’ Office, Pleasant Hill, KY.

The next time you see the Trustees’ Office staircase, or a piece of Shaker furniture, or you hum the tune to Simple Gifts, or you hear the lines ”When true simplicity is gained,” remember that true simplicity was hard to achieve – but that’s what made it so worth striving toward.

Simplicity is a gift.