Grounds on Display


Managing the indoor and outdoor experience


At most museums, the most impressive sights are hanging on the walls. Shelburne Museum in Vermont certainly boasts a tremendous collection of American folk art. Founded in 1947 by Electra Havemeyer Webb, the museum now has 150,000 works ranging from paintings by Grandma Moses and antique quilts to some of the world’s finest examples of decoys and weathervanes. There’s also an impressive array of circus memorabilia, including a 1902 carousel. Last, but not least, is the Ticonderoga, a 220-foot steamboat that once sailed on nearby Lake Champlain.

However, at Shelburne Museum—with its picturesque 45-acre site of lawns, gardens and landscapes—there’s plenty to see outside as well.

The grounds and gardens team: Randy Gaboriault, Jessica Gallas, Rick Peters and Kevin Welch pose atop the basin that holds the 220-foot steamboat Ticonderoga.

“A few years ago, we conducted a survey to find out from visitors about their experience at the museum—and of 10 categories, the number one rated experience of the museum came out to be the grounds and gardens. It was a bit of a surprise for some—but not to me!” says Rick Peters, director of grounds and gardens. “Our administration and our board of trustees has been very supportive of our work, and for the past few years we’ve been ramping up our grounds and garden program.”

Recent additions to the grounds have included a peony garden with around 700 flowers and a major renovation to the landscape surrounding the museum’s circus building. “It’s one of our most popular buildings,” says Peters. “There was a rock garden that was really overgrown; it had essentially become a brush pile. So, we took everything out, including the rocks. Then, we put in new soil and placed all the rocks back exactly where we wanted them.” In the process, 1,700 daylilies were planted, along with iris and other plants. “We think it’s going to be stunning,” he adds. In the center of the horseshoe-shaped building sits the museum’s antique carousel, which Peters and his staff are responsible for assembling.

“We also maintain the museum’s fleet of vehicles,” says Peters. The grounds staff and some other departments rely heavily on Cushman utility vehicles, which help them navigate across a busy public road from the garage to the main museum grounds. Golf carts are used as well. “They’re small, they’re unobtrusive to visitors when we’re open and they’re quiet. You can go right up to a building where a 1-ton dump truck can’t—and with the price of gas now, they make even more sense.”

The rock gardens and landscaping surrounding the museum’s circusbuilding were recently renovated.

In April, a new series of pathways was added to help improve the flow of visitors and enhance the aesthetics of the road network at the museum. “It’s designed to enhance our visitors’ experience,” says Peters of the pathway construction project, which will push the travel corridors off to the sides while improving traffic flow. “We’ve opened up a lot of sight-lines, so visitors will have better views of the property when they first arrive, and they’ll be greeted by a green area of lawn and gardens rather than a congested main walkway. This is the first step in a number of projects we have planned. We’re really looking to change the look of the landscape at the museum in a way that will improve the visitors’ experience by making it easier for them to get around and also provide more gardens and other areas of visual interest.”

In 2008, the grounds care program will become 100 percent organic, explains Peters. “We’ve always been as careful as we could be, but we’re excited to make the move to become completely organic,” he says. “We think by the end of the season, we’ll be there. There will be some challenges. For example, weed control on our paths might be more time-consuming, as it will involve some hand-work, but we’re considering adding another part-time employee to help out with that. Going green is big right now, and we feel that we should be doing our part.”

In April, a new series of pathways was added to help improve the flow ofvisitors and enhance the aesthetics of the pathway network at Shelburne Museum.

He says that only minimal amounts of fertilizer and weed control were being applied in past years, so the new organic program won’t mean dramatic differences. However, it has led him to research new materials and methods to keep the grounds looking good. “We try to use a very active mowing program to keep the grass at a height that helps to keep the weeds down,” explains Peters. Shelburne Museum uses two Toro Groundsmaster rotary mowers—one of which is four-wheel drive to navigate some of the hilly terrain of the property.

“With the help of our administration and board of trustees, we’ve been able to purchase some new equipment that’s more efficient,” adds Peters. “We’ve moved to the Echo line in hand-held equipment—leaf blowers, weed eaters—and we’ve had good luck with them.”

The museum is also making changes to its vehicle fleet to become more environmentally sensitive. “We sold some of our older, less efficient vehicles,” says Peters, “and we’re trying to purchase new vehicles that best match the job they’re needed for. For example, we’re considering purchasing a hybrid Toyota or Honda—because there are times now where we’re running back to the garage to get a gallon of paint in a four-wheel drive pickup truck. That doesn’t make sense. The museum is very well-known—we have in excess of 100,000 visitors a year—and we think we should help to send a good message.”

Photo by Miki Duisterhof/Courtesy of Shelburne Museum.
Shelburne Museum boasts 18 gardens on its 45-acre campus. Many are planted to reflect exhibition themes, including the Pauline Cropper Mallory Memorial Garden in front of the Webb Gallery.

Shelburne Museum is a nonprofit organization, so there are always budget considerations. One strategy that has proven effective is to partner with volunteers to perform important maintenance—especially in the extensive gardens. Head Gardener Jessica Gallas has been at the museum for eight years, and Peters credits her work in improving and expanding not only the gardens, but also the educational programs that are offered.

“Jessica has done a great job in recruiting and keeping volunteers—and they really help. It’s a very important part of what we do,” he says. “We also have a relationship that’s growing with [the local] Master Gardener program. We’ve had as many as 70 people attend those programs. For example, we have a large collection of lilacs here, and they learn how to prune and care for them.”

The grounds and gardens department is now also partnering with the museum’s education department to install a Victory vegetable garden (referring to vegetable gardens planted during the World Wars to ensure an adequate food supply for civilians and troops) and to conduct garden education programs for students who attend a summer day camp at the facility. “We’re also starting a garden walk program this summer for groups of interested visitors,” says Peters. “We’ll take them around the museum and show them what we do—and give them ideas for gardening at home. We have a very strong education program here, and we’re now working to incorporate more of a gardening component into it. That seems to be something that people are really interested in these days.”

Trees are an important part of the landscape at the museum, and they are cared for by the Northland Job Corps Center’s Urban Forestry Training Program. “They’ve done a tremendous job for us—they’re here about 25 days a year,” says Peters. “We don’t have the type of resources necessary to do that kind of work.” The two-year program, based in Vergennes, Vt., trains and places workers in the tree care profession and partners with nonprofit groups such as the Shelburne Museum to provide work sites for the students.

This type of assistance allows the grounds staff to focus most of its attention during the growing season on routine maintenance. The team consists of Peters, as well as full-time employees Randy Gaboriault and Kevin Welch—all of whom have many years of experience at the museum. Several part-time workers are also added during the summer. “It’s not a big staff, so we keep moving!” says Peters.

Instructors and students from the Northland Job Corps Center’s Urban Forestry Training Program handle tree care responsibilities at the museum.

Everyone on the staff follows a strict safety program. “We’re very letter-of-the-law on safety and training, from the use of ROPS to eye and ear protection. It’s very important to us,” says Peters. The staff is also trained to minimize the disturbance of work to visitors as much as possible. “We try to do as much as work as we can between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. After that, if there are visitors or school groups or some sort of program going on, we try to stay away from those areas if at all possible. We shut off mowers and other equipment if a group is passing by—we don’t want to interfere with their experience at the museum.”

Shelburne Museum hosts some school groups during the winter months, but otherwise is closed to visitors. “That’s our time to try to get bigger projects done,” he adds. “We also work on our equipment, do pruning work, paint picnic tables and benches, etc.”

In addition to welcoming daily visitors during the season, Shelburne Museum hosts summer concerts, which have attracted headliners such as Melissa Etheridge and Willie Nelson. The concerts are held on one large, open area of the property; Peters says that there have typically only been minor repairs needed to the grounds after the large crowds and staging depart, and any necessary repairs are made quickly to ensure the polished appearance of the grounds.

“We have incredible collections inside our buildings here at the museum—world-class collections,” says Peters. “We think that the outside is now complementing what we have on the inside. People can come here and walk around and get a quality experience.”

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories.