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They reap, they show

A Vermont museum welcomes grass-roots collectors, inviting the beer coasters, antique toasters and questions about what it all means.

December 04, 2005|Paul Lieberman | Times Staff Writer

Bennington, Vt. — ELLEN Perry Berkeley can thank Bret Chenkin for starting the chain of events that led the museum here to display some of the bars of soap she has swiped from hotels around the world.

Chenkin, who teaches humanities at a local high school, began lobbying the Bennington Museum two years ago to duplicate an exhibition he had once seen at the University of Vermont's museum, which displayed the prized collections of its alumni, generally paintings and other fine art you'd expect to find in a museum. Chenkin figured that the museum here similarly might hang notable local collections such as the drawings accumulated by Julius Held, a Rubens and Rembrandt scholar, or his own of black-and-white 20th century photographs.

But it was not until 29-year-old Stephen Perkins took over as director last summer that Chenkin found a receptive ear for his proposal, sort of, for Perkins thought the Bennington Museum should democratize it -- by inviting locals to display anything they collected.

That's how the museum best known for its wing full of Grandma Moses' paintings wound up also displaying Amanda Haar's antique toasters, Susan Beal's windup toys, Adam Kunin's maple sugar taps ... and a sampling of the 74-year-old Berkeley's lifetime collection of soaps, each carrying a memory.

The soap from the Algonquin Hotel in New York reminds Berkeley of how she and her husband, Roy, found shoes sticking out from under their room's bed and wondered whether a body might be attached. A soap from the QE 2 cruise ship reminds her how the winds were so strong on the voyage the loudspeakers warned passengers to clutch their children's hands tightly on deck. And the soap from a Days Inn reminds her how much cheaper a night's stay used to be -- "$8 and up," the wrapper boasts.

Berkeley was baffled when the museum asked her to value her collection. "Mine is not valuable except to me," said the Shaftsbury, Vt., resident, who put down $1,000 anyway.

Of course, the entire "Bennington Collects" exhibition came with a distinctly low-end cost. "It's a zero budget line show," said Perkins, the museum director.

Though first suggested by schoolteacher Chenkin in 2003, the show became a reality almost by chance in a frantic few weeks before its October opening.

In addition to the scenes of a bygone New England created by Grandma Moses, the museum has permanent exhibits of Bennington Pottery, Vermont furniture and artifacts of the Revolutionary War Battle of Bennington. It also assembles a special show for the summer tourist season, this year's being "The Art World of Brattleboro's Hunt Family," which included Richard Morris Hunt, the 19th century Beaux-Arts architect of various Newport, R.I., mansions and the base of the Statue of Liberty.

As fall approached, the museum staff took preliminary steps to renovate a room next to the Hunt show, removing the items normally there -- a collection of antique glassware -- and leaving its display cases vacant. That's when Perkins decided that the shelves might be used to display the local collections and he put out a plea, through area newspapers, for submissions.

The first collector to call in was Haar, offering some of her 30 antique toasters, though she said, "You probably won't want these," Perkins recalled. In fact, his intent was, "We would take everything until we ran out of space."

He pointed out at the time that museums someday may covet the items people think of as insignificant today, and he joked, "I wish I'd never lost my Mighty Mouse lunchbox." That's when Jay Pokines called in offering his collection of lunchboxes paying tribute to "Hopalong Cassidy," "The Dukes of Hazzard" and the like.

Each collector was allotted a 3-by-1-foot shelf in the glass cases, which soon were being filled with old piggy banks and eggbeaters and Amanda Rice's ceramic and wood roosters and hens. There were model train locomotives and chocolate molds and a couple of exotic collections, one of oil lamps from Nepal. The museum also set aside a few full cabinets for collections donated in the past, of Victorian fans, Brother Thomas pottery and American dolls.

More than simply filling a vacant room, Perkins said, he hoped the grass-roots show would connect the local population with what some might see as a lofty "museum on the hill," despite its abundance of Americana in the form of old war muskets, quilts and Grandma Moses memorabilia. The museum sits just below a neighborhood of high-end Colonial-era homes and white-fenced mansions, and next to the cemetery with the grave of poet Robert Frost.

So Perkins offered free admission on the last Saturday in October that "Bennington Collects" officially opened, with a popcorn truck outside and an "Antiques Roadshow"-like appraisal of any "treasures from their attic" that area residents brought in. The open house drew about 450 visitors, quite a turnout for a museum that attracts about 35,000 visitors a year.

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