Seldom-seen objects will come to light in a new Berkshire Museum exhibition, "Objectify: A Look into the Permanent Collection," opening on Monday.
The show breaks with the longtime museum practice of grouping similar objects. Instead, it presents art, antiques and nature specimens in a mix that points up relationships and illustrates how the collection evolved.
Designed by Peter Garlington, design director at Interprint, and Pittsfield artist/photographer Leo Nash, in collaboration with collections manager Leanne Hayden, it will be in place for two years. Artworks and objects will be cycled in and out, however, so, as Garlington put it, "The show that's up on April 1 will be drastically different from the one taken down in two years."
He, Nash and Hayden said they see the design as a template for future installations from the permanent collection, made up of gifts and purchases over the museum's 110-year history. In that time, it has grown to some 50,000 items, 90 percent of which have seldom, if ever, been shown.
Those that have -- like plaster casts of works from classical antiquity -- have, until now, been displayed in their own separate spaces, or "silos," Hayden said. While that approach was standard practice in the museum world for decades, the unchanging displays gave visitors little reason to return.
Hayden said some people in the community she talked with told her they hadn't visited the museum since childhood, expecting everything would still look the same.
Museum director Van Shields, when he took office, said he wanted to rethink this "core" public experience of the institution to overcome that perception.
It was at his direction, and that of director of interpretation Maria Mingalone, that the "Objectify" project got under way a year ago, Hayden said.
She said two recent shows involving the permanent collection -- "Race to the Top" in 2009 about Robert E. Peary's 1909 expedition to the North Pole, financed by the museum's founder, Zenas Crane; and "Armed and Dangerous" in 2010 which focused on the evolution of armor and weaponry.
Both presented objects from the collection with narratives that drew connections and new layers of meaning from them.
In "Objectify," the narrative is about the collection itself -- its division into art science and history; its growth and evolution; its care and documentation; and the ways curators interpret it for the public.
It was Garlington's and Nash's task to construct that narrative visually through the objects they chose and the display spaces they designed.
"Unfortunately," quipped Garlington, who serves on the museum's collections committee, "They gave us free rein."
He recruited Nash and the two men sifted through hundreds of antiques, artworks, nature specimens, mechanical devices, costumes and whatnots in the basement storage rooms, to find ones that would tell that story.
With Hayden's help, they identified pivotal --and popular -- pieces such as Pahat the Egyptian mummy; Norman Rockwell's 1950 painting "Shuffleton's Barbershop"; Hudson River School scenes; a full-scale plaster replica of the "Winged Victory of Samothrace," one of only 10 such copies left of the original in the Louve; a giant moose head and many others that tell the museum's story.
They found a fragment of a Wright brothers' airplane, made at Kitty Hawk in the early 20th century, that Zenas Crane bought unassembled and brought to the museum for display. Museum crews put it together incorrectly, Hayden said, the Wrights asked for it back, and gave it instead to the Smithsonian. The fragment escaped shipment and will be in the show.
They also encountered a stuffed chimpanzee holding a cane to walk upright, part of a 1930s museum installation, "The Hall of Man," on Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. The chimp is still under consideration.
"Objectify" takes up four upstairs galleries. The first, at the head of the main staircase, focuses on early Berkshire history, with a full-size, bark-covered Wampanoag Indian wigwam; the original face of Pittsfield's 1822 town clock, photos of Civil War veterans, that giant moose head and many other objects displayed in a closely packed jumble, typical of the "cabinet" style display of objects at that time.
It was a time -- the museum opened April 1, 1903 -- when rich Americans were becoming global travelers and buying art and artifacts to bring back home for public display, Garlington said.
A second gallery illustrates how objects are packed and stored in wooden crates. It is deliberately made to look low and cramped, as a storeroom would be, with some crates open to display their contents and others closed to keep theirs a mystery,
A third gallery features the best of paintings and photographs in the collection, stacked to the ceiling as was traditional in the 19th century. The fourth shows how work would be displayed today. In a cool white environment, ancient funerary heads stand next to a Matisse oil portrait; a line drawing by Matisse is grouped with ones by Ellsworth Kelly; and early Roman glass glistens near a display of fragments from the old Berkshire Glassworks.
Garlington said mix of the objects in the collection were meant by founder Zenas Crane to bring global art, history and science to the Berkshires to educate the public. After 100 years, the museum will still be trying to do that very thing, but in new ways.
On exhibit ...
What: "Objectify: A Look Into the Permanent Collection" of more than 50,000 artworks, specimens, and artifacts.
Where: The Berkshire Museum, 39 South St. Pittsfield.
When: Opens Monday, the 100th anniversary date of the museum's opening April 1, 1903, and will be up for two years with new objects regularly brought in and others removed.
Free public reception will be held Friday, April 5, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.
Information: (413) 443-7171; www.berkshiremuseum.org.
To reach Charles Bonenti:
or (413) 496-6211.
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