PITTSFIELD, MASS. — As the leaves start to turn their golden hues and early nightfall draws ever closer, the Berkshire Museum heralds the Halloween season with a new exhibit "Something Scary," opening today, with free admission for Berkshire residents from 5 to 8 p.m. as part of Third Thursday.
Former and current exhibition managers Kirsti Scutt Edwards and Jason Verchot have scoured the permanent collection for objects, art and natural history specimens that, when presented in the right context with appropriate spooky staging, sound and lighting effects, create a decidedly eerie atmosphere throughout a pair of upstairs galleries.
Guest curator Edwards conceived the exhibit as a fun, creative way to look at the century-old institution's extensive holdings, while still keeping to the museum's family friendly mission.
From 2005 to 2009, she "spent a lot of time in the collections freaking myself out," she admitted on a recent tour of the galleries as they were being installed. "You go through the different aisles and see things that are kind of scary."
The intense impact of eyes is everywhere in the exhibit. Nothing escapes the unblinking stare of pale china dolls and a clutch of all-seeing owls. On the walls, the occupants of antique oil paintings appear to follow people around the room. In one instance they actually do, as visitors large and small can secretly peek through eye holes excised from a reproduction of an old master, just like in the horror movies.
A haunted house-worth display of dark, foreboding Victorian furniture and a looming grandfather clock is replete with creepy curios worth a careful closer look.
"Fear comes in all sizes," reminds Edwards.
Antique weapons fit to put any serf or knight on his best behavior are thankfully mostly ceremonial, designed to strike fear rather than an actual blow.
A pair of mirrors creates an endless corridor of crazed reflections, with another hung as a "vampire spotter" by a survival kit of wooden stakes and rosary beads ready to fend off an attack of the undead.
"It's very tongue in cheek," assured Edwards.
Interpretation is everything, she noted, as even a humble cooking pot can become a witch's cauldron when seen through a scary lens.
Cultural differences in attitude across the years are much in evidence, especially toward the dead.
"There are wonderful Victorian mementoes of those that have passed," said Edwards, pointing out a framed memorial wreath made of real hair. Whole industries were set up to create decorative images and wearable jewelry to keep a token of a departed loved one close at hand. Nearby, a faded family photograph includes a recently deceased child present for the last time, propped up carefully as if still alive.
"Victorians really embraced death," Edwards observed. "For them, it was such a common part of life."
Also on display are several Ouija boards borrowed for the occasion by Verchot from Maine collector Elaine Star. Some are from the late 1800s, when speaking with the dead was a hugely popular pastime. A nearby table lets curious modern-day communicators attempt the activity for themselves.
Preserved, once living creatures lurk in every nook and corner, from a fierce wolverine to a sleek-coated monkey, fangs bared in a chilling snarl. A slew of skeletons from bullfrog to beaver includes massive tiger and crocodile skulls, along with complete sets of human and chimpanzee bones, ready and waiting for Darwinian comparison.
When walking through the galleries, be sure to look up. In homage to Poe and Hitchcock, ravens and other wild creatures loom overhead, while a wolf howls at a suspended "bat mobile" that would impress even Alexander Calder.
"We put owls on our lunch boxes and school supplies," noted Verchot, "but in some cultures they are harbingers of death and you want to steer clear of them. They are silent hunters and come sneaking up on you when you least expect it."
Among the interactive exhibits is a pile of "body parts" waiting to be assembled like a chimera into custom-designed cloth monsters. Look behind a screen to identify the origins of ominous shadowy figures, then create a few new ones in a life-size shadow theater.
Special programming designed to complement the installation includes after-hours flashlight scavenger hunts in the darkened galleries, a Learner's Lab presentation on applying scary makeup, and a "horror movie" series with a mix of family friendly titles such as "Goonies" and more grownup scary classics like "Psycho."
The exhibit will stay open till Halloween night, offering families a fright-filled foray fit for the fall season.
ON EXHIBIT ...
What: "Something Scary" gallery exhibition
Where: Berkshire Museum, 39 South St., Pittsfield, Mass.
When: Sept. 15 to Oct. 31
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, noon to 5 p.m. Sundays
Admission: $13 adults, $6 children, free age 3 and under and Museum members
Information: www.berkshiremuseum.org 413-443-7171
What: Flashlight Scavenger Hunt
Where: In the galleries in the dark
When: Saturdays Oct. 1, 15, 29 from 6 to 7 p.m.
Admission: $5 Hunt only, $10 Hunt & Film package ($3/$7.50 Museum members)
What: Horror Film Series
Where: Little Cinema @ Berkshire Museum
When: Fridays & Saturdays at 7 p.m.
Tickets: $7.50 ($5 Museum members)