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Morgan horse museum is trotting to Middlebury

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Posted on September 6, 2010 |
By John Flowers



MIDDLEBURY — The National Museum of the Morgan Horse will soon trot from its current headquarters in Shelburne to what officials hope will be a more stable home on Middlebury’s Main Street.

Amber Broderick, director/archivist for the NMMH, confirmed on Thursday the museum had signed a five-year lease to occupy the former Vermont Beads & Fibers location at 34 Main St., next to the National Bank of Middlebury.

It’s a move aimed at placing the NMMH on a stronger financial footing and in a better location for foot traffic. The NMMH currently shares space with the American Morgan Horse Association in a building at 122 Bostwick Road, near the Shelburne Museum.

At the same time, a critical mass of complementary local institutions also proved a powerful draw.

The move will place the NMMH closer to the University of Vermont Morgan Horse Farm in Weybridge and Middlebury College, which is considering a request to host the museum’s archives. The presence in Middlebury of the Vermont Folklife Center and the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History also factored into the NMMH’s relocation decision.

And if the physical and institutional infrastructure weren’t enough of a draw, there was a historical reason to base the museum in Addison County. Joseph Battell, one of Middlebury’s towering historical figures, published the first volume of the Morgan Horse Register in 1894, marking the beginning of a formal breed registry.

“Middlebury seemed like a very appropriate location for us,” Broderick said. “We felt like it was an appropriate match.”

The NMMH was founded in 1992 by the American Morgan Horse Institute, for the purpose of educating the public about the Morgan breed while collecting, preserving and making available for study art and historical materials related to the storied animal.

With roots dating back 1789, the Morgan is one of the earliest horse breeds developed in the United States. Justin Morgan bred “Figure,” the founding stallion of the breed, in Randolph, Vt., back in the last decade of the 18th century. Morgans were often used in the Civil War as cavalry mounts, and as a preferred choice for riders in the Pony Express. The Morgan horse is the official Vermont State Animal.

The NMMH’s extensive collection consists of paintings, photographs, prints and sculptures depicting the Morgan horse in various activities from the late 1700s to the present. Also included are brochures, breeding pamphlets, club newsletters, trophies, correspondences, historic farm equipment, leather tack, Civil War ephemera and a surrey from the 19th century, according to an informational flyer provided by Broderick.

All of the museum’s exhibits — most of them donated, some on loan — are currently housed at NMMH headquarters in Shelburne. But the museum had to search for a new home, recently, when the American Morgan Horse Association announced it would be leaving the shared space. That meant the NMMH — which survives mainly on donations and gift shop sales — would either have to assume all maintenance and upkeep for the building, or find a less expensive solution. After an extensive search, museum officials selected Middlebury and the 34 Main St. spot, Broderick said. The 1,800-square-foot space will accommodate the NMMH’s exhibits and a gift shop featuring Morgan-related items, according to Broderick. She hopes Middlebury College will agree to host the museum’s archives as part of the institution’s special collections.

Middlebury College Curator of Special Collections & Archives Andy Wentink said the institution is nearing a decision on the request.

“We feel it would be an extraordinary research archive to add to our already impressive archive at the college,” Wentink said.

“The museum’s archive is fairly well organized,” he added “It wouldn’t be a major undertaking to accept this. There is nothing so far that seems to be a deal-breaker.”

Wentink said the college’s handling of the Morgan horse archives seems even more apropos given the historic involvement that Battell, a Middlebury College trustee and benefactor, had in putting the breed on the map.

While the nonprofit NMMH has no affiliation with the UVM Morgan Horse Farm, Broderick believes the two entities can enjoy a symbiotic relationship.

“The most common question we get is, ‘Where can we visit these animals?’” Broderick said. “We will recommend they visit the farm.”

Plans call for a museum to hold a “grand reopening” in Middlebury in early November. Broderick anticipates a soft opening in mid- to late-October. Once in full swing, the museum will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. Museum leaders are still weighing a possible admission fee. The NMMH currently asks for a donation from visitors.

While the NMMH isn’t likely to be a retail powerhouse, Broderick said the museum and its programs are likely to draw visitors from throughout the country and internationally — people who figure to stay at local hotels and eat at local restaurants.

“We’re really hoping Middlebury will be glad to have us there,” Broderick said.

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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