Originally appeared in the print version of Seven Days on Dec. 14, 2011.
Janie Cohen walks through the stacks on the top floor of the University of Vermont’s Fleming Museum of Art, running a finger along the shelves and pointing out favorites. Ancient Native American pottery shares a shelf with pre-Columbian artifacts, which perch next to small-scale European sculpture. Cohen, the museum’s executive director, stops to point out a tattered-looking collection of maps created by Napoleon and his troops, then continues down to the end where the paintings hang. A nearby table displays smoking apparatuses, under consideration for a winter exhibition; a row of hunting spears hangs above a drawer full of Native American beadwork.
This area of the museum — where the Fleming keeps its treasures — is generally off limits to visitors. It’s one of three on-site storage vaults, and it’s crammed with objects dating from 3500 BC to the present day. Cohen knows them all. Visitors, even regular ones, probably haven’t seen a quarter of the collection.
All museums struggle to represent the full range of their holdings, and the Fleming is no exception. Cohen estimates that only 5 percent of its 24,000 items are on view at any time; the other 95 percent sit on shelves upstairs, neatly labeled but as good as invisible.