Feeling hungry for some culture? New knowledge? Diverse perspectives across multiple disciplines? Then head to the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, MA, where a veritable smorgasbord awaits. With something to entice even the pickiest culture vulture, there’s enough to sate your appetite without feeling stuffed and exhausted.
From paper to posterity
Since 1903, this cultural institution housed in a solidly attractive building that confidently says, “I’m a museum” has been living the vision of its founder, Zenas Crane. As the third-generation owner of Crane & Company paper manufacturer, he invested in his community through an ideal inspired by visits to notable museums such as the American Museum for Natural Science, the Smithsonian, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Instead of choosing one path for his gift to the region, he chose three: natural history, history, and art. He began collecting a diverse array of artifacts that would give visitors a “window on the world.” Today, the Museum boasts a collection of over 40,000 items, including an Egyptian mummy, a 143-pound meteorite, and a wide variety of works by notable artists. In 2008, the museum added the Feigenbaum Hall of Innovation, dedicated to thought pioneers, innovators, and inventions stemming from or influencing the Berkshire region.
Although it focuses on three disciplines, the museum actually feels like more – aquarium, eclectic curiosity collection, children’s museum, learning classroom, community center, and arthouse cinema.
Chief Experience Officer (CXO) Craig Langlois is responsible for overseeing the museum’s efforts to maintain and expand the collection, create exhibitions, and provide diverse and meaningful educational and programming opportunities for the museum’s patrons. As he puts it, “My job is to make sure the museum is meeting the needs of the visitors and communities we serve both in and out of the museum. It’s the coolest job ever!”
Langlois is also responsible for heading up the implementation of the strategic plan for the museum, which includes creative approaches to the stuff we never see, like HVAC and drainage, as well as the stuff we do, such as innovative approaches and themes to displaying the museum’s collection.
The strategic plan incorporated comprehensive stakeholder input. At the end of the process, five guiding themes emerged for categorizing and displaying the museum’s collection: We Shape History; Our Living World; We Perceive a Process; We Make and Create; and The Human Fabric.
These targeted areas allow for what Langlois calls a “reimagining of the permanent collection from multidisciplinary to interdisciplinary.” He explains, “We’re trying to break down silos as they relate to how the museum’s collection is exhibited. We’re now reexamining our collection to create a more expansive narrative around an item or exhibit theme.”
An example of this is the museum’s recent exhibit Objects and Their Stories: Shoes. Here, the role of geography and climate; fashion and functionality; materials, design, and use; and societal norms are examined and contrasted. This approach weaves a narrative that ties a seemingly mundane object to the larger context of art, history, and science.
The multi-faceted philosophy for displaying the collection plays to the Berkshire Museum’s smaller scale. Langlois observes, “Our size allows us to be more nimble than comparable museums with much larger collections. We can respond to current trends or serendipitous moments. There’s potential everywhere for an exhibition theme and we can create smaller exhibitions to highlight a thread that runs through the diversity of our collection. We’re also able to bring in high-caliber traveling shows that we can build upon with what we own.”
Trees can be heroes
The holiday season is the perfect time to venture to the Berkshire Museum. The Festival of Trees is a beloved and bedazzling annual tradition. Each year local Berkshire community organizations, businesses, and schools donate and decorate trees in line with a theme carefully chosen by museum staff. This year, the theme is heroes – widely defined as those who inspire us. They depict characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe who exist in our imaginations, and the local first responders who arrive on the scene just in time at our own homes.
Over 100 trees are on display through early January, with numerous special events throughout December, such as an interactive gallery, Festival of Trees After Dark, and choral and handbell concerts. Visitors can also compete in Festival of Trees Bingo, searching for a particular tree theme or a unique ornament.
Through early May, the She Shapes History exhibit will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment granting women’s suffrage. This dramatic exhibit features artifacts, stories, and personal narratives of women from the Berkshires and beyond, from the 1800s to the present day. The biographies of local heroes, including Elizabeth Freeman and Susan B. Anthony, mingle with other powerful examples of the hard-fought battle for women’s right to vote.
Also traced in the exhibit is the evolution of “women’s work” over the past 200 years, from rural homesteaders to officeholders in high-level organizational and political positions.
The items on display and accompanying descriptions weave how technology and innovation helped women achieve independence from the home and gain economic opportunity. The invention of the humble bicycle created freedom on two wheels and is credited with allowing women an acceptable mode of transportation that widened their geographical, intellectual, and political horizons.
The sewing machine and typewriter created a market for skills necessary for work deemed appropriate for women in that not-too-bygone era. Fashion also evolved to be more user-friendly and comfortable, literally liberating women from the bondage of too-tight corsets, and cumbersome skirts. Early adopter and suffragette Amelia Bloomer helped give the name to the pant-like undergarment that would become the physical and metaphorical symbol for the right to vote movement of the mid- to late-1800s. It provided freedom of movement for women on the move.
The exhibit also focuses on women’s civic participation illuminating how their involvement has shaped society over the past 200 years. It also examines the American voting system, as well as the methods and messages used to sway public opinion in favor of the vote – as well as voices that advocated for the status quo.
Education beyond the classroom
The Berkshire Museum offers a full array of programming to serve its tiniest patrons, families, schools. On weekends, there’s Chow Time in the Aquarium where kids help prepare enticing meals for aquarium residents and Kitchen Ka-Boom for budding scientists who perform safe and zany experiments with ingredients found in any kitchen. The Wee Muse programs include Art Lab, Littlest Learners, and Parent/Child STEM Sessions.
Thanks to underwriting from Greylock Federal Credit Union, the Beauregard Family, and the wider community, classes from all public and private schools visit Berkshire Museum free of charge.
Museum educators devise educational programs for school field trips across the museum’s collection. Because of the museum’s smaller size, Langlois emphasizes that educational programming can be more bespoke than at larger museums. Trained and knowledgeable staff can work with teachers to create field trips that complement classroom learning and take a deep dive into objects and interdisciplinary themes.
Museum to go
Langlois is excited about cultivating diversity of voices through what he calls mobile museums. This tradition of a portable pop-up exhibit goes back 80 years in the museum’s history, when executive director Laura Bragg created exhibit boxes for community events.
Today, these mini-exhibitions bring Bragg’s idea to the IKEA age. The mobile units resemble stackable and versatile cupboards to work within the host institution’s space constraints. For Langlois, “These mobile museums are community curated in that the local community institution, such as a school, works with museum staff to tell a relevant story.” He explains, “A challenge and responsibility that museums have is to develop narratives from multiple perspectives. Mobile museums help us do that and allow diverse voices to be heard. They can also respond to current events and curriculum.” Soon, there will be three mobile museums piloted with local area schools.
Also in the works is a program for the museum to act as a substitute teacher. Langlois envisions working with teachers to develop curriculum to free educators to create much-needed common planning times and collaborations with colleagues. “We’re aware of our need as a museum to help educators use our collection and expertise to enhance their content.”
Langlois is also keen to digitize items in the museum’s collection along with their stories so they can be accessed online. This emphasis on storytelling is also found in the museum’s partnership with the Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area to collaborate on tying oral histories to the museum’s artifacts.
Little Cinema with big stories
Housed in the museum as part of its offerings is the Little Cinema in a dedicated auditorium with comfortable seating and large-enough screen. It’s an arthouse cinema in our region dedicated to bringing first-rate independent and foreign films and documentaries that you’d find in any large city.
That’s not all, folks
Opening in January and running through May is The Art of Warner Bros. Animation. Kim Donoughe, the museum’s marketing and brand manager, outlines that this colorful exhibition will explore the artwork and animation process behind some of the most iconic cartoons of the 20th century.
It will include a collection of sketches, model sheets, paintings, animation cels, and completed cartoon clips. The museum curatorial team will draw out the many stories told by these objects – from ACME science and cartoon physics to the artistic, cultural, and historical elements embedded in the classic cartoons.
Museum is the community
Langlois acknowledges that the Berkshire Museum stands today as the vision of one man now embraced by the wider Pittsfield and regional community. He believes it’s living its mission of bringing people together to spark creativity and innovation through its collection and programming. And he emphasizes his gratitude for the community that supports the institution, sponsors events, become members, and who show up at museum programs. For the Berkshire Museum, community engagement is what it’s all about – collecting people as well as things. •
For more information about the Berkshire Museum, visit www.berkshiremuseum.org.
By Mary B. O’Neill, Ph.D.