Conservation before conservation at the Shelburne Museum: The doll collection

Nancie Ravenel


In 1947, Electra Havemeyer Webb began to assemble her museum. Helping her make her vision a reality were teams of craftspeople responsible for moving examples of New England vernacular architecture to the Shelburne Museum grounds and mounting exhibitions within them. Through common sense and creativity, these craftspeople sometimes undertook their projects in a manner that presages today’s accepted practice in art conservation.

One such staff member was Marta Mengis, a Latvian refugee who was hired as a seamstress in 1950 after her son, Einars, was hired as a photographer at Shelburne Museum. From the start of her employment, Marta kept a log of repairs that she made to the collection in a series of notebooks. In 1960-64, in preparation for a catalog of the Museum’s dolls, Marta worked with Einars to photograph each of the approximately 500 dolls in the collection in their dressed and undressed states. Despite the effort put toward the project, the catalog was never completed.

In 1998, preparations recommenced to produce a catalog of Shelburne’s dolls. Following a curatorial reappraisal and a condition survey of the collection, 260 dolls have undergone conservation treatment in preparation for photography. Using photographs and documents from the Shelburne Museum archives, this paper examines some of Mrs. Mengis’s projects and their influence on recent conservation efforts on the same artifacts. Changes made to the manner in which the dolls are displayed are also addressed.

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2003 | Washington DC | Volume 10