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The Shakers: I Don't Want to be Remembered as a Chair

1998
Distributed by Films Media Group, PO Box 2053, Princeton, New Jersey 08543-2053; 800-257-5126
Produced by BBC Worldwide
Director n/a
VHS, color, 50 min.
Jr. High - Adult
Religious Studies, History, Sociology


Reviewed by Christopher Densmore, University Archives, State University of

Recommended   
 


The Shakers are a perfectionist, communal and celibate religious community. Once there were more than twenty Shaker communities and over six thousand members, but now only Sabbathday Lake in Maine, with nine members, survives to continue the more than two century old Shaker traditions. The Shakers: I Don't What to be Remembered as a Chair consists of interviews with the Shakers about their lives and beliefs, and shows the Shakers at worship, meals and work. Celibacy, at least according to one Shaker, is far less of a difficulty for persons wishing to enter the community than the realities of communal life. The history of the sect, from their origins in England to their expansion in North America following the American Revolution is told through historic photographs and illustrations, with background by historian Stephen Marini of Wellesley College and Gerard Wertkin of the Museum of American Folk Art.

The video draws a sharp contrast between Shaker ideas of simplicity and the religious life and the flourishing market for Shaker furniture and other objects. Images of a Shaker brother tending the sheep and Shaker sisters preparing simple meals at Sabbathday Lake are contrasted with film of an antique auction were a Shaker dresser is purchased by talk show host Oprah Winfrey for over $200,000. The Shakers' life of "relentless self denial" is set against the an alleged American attitude that is possible to buy into a way of life without commitment or even understanding. However, while the film does a good job of allowing the Shakers to speak for themselves, does not explain there is a market for original Shaker furniture and for objects based on Shaker designs. One collector of Shaker materials-- gratuitously described as "wealthy" -- is allowed to speak, but within the context of this production, his explanations of the aesthetic value of Shaker designs are overwhelmed by the video's critical assessment of American materialism. There is no explanation of why Shaker furniture is distinctive. Viewers unfamiliar with Shakers and Shaker design may be left puzzled about why a market for Shaker objects exists at all. The film does not mention that the Shakers themselves made and actively marketed chairs, boxes and other objects to the wider community. If there is a market for Shaker design, that market was in part initiated by the Shakers themselves.

The video provides a good, well photographed and well edited introduction to the Shakers and has the unique strength of being able to tell the story largely through the words of contemporary Shakers themselves. The story will be readily intelligible to a general audience who may have little or no previous knowledge of the Shakers. As such, it could be useful for adult education or general survey courses of American religion, but only marginally useful for an audience which has, or can be expected to, read some of the abundant available printed sources on the Shakers. The utility of the video is reduced by the excessive time spent criticizing the antique market for Shaker items without adequately explaining the attraction of Shaker design to non-Shakers.