Never have I seen a more impressive integration of art, history, and the natural world than is currently on display in the second floor galleries at The Berkshire Museum.
Since I have been involved with the institution for more than 60 years either as a student, employee or retiree (now Natural History curator, emeritus) I look at exhibits with a more critical eye than perhaps the casual visitor.
This exhibit, "ArtZoo," is flawless in its melding of these disciplines, from actual mounted birds — with one extinct, another among the most common living today — in a gallery adjoining life-size bronze sculptures of Africa's best-known large mammals to miniature Japanese Netsuke (animal sculpture) less than two inches, alongside a polar bear skin and various taxidermy mammals. Throughout the galleries dedicated to "ArtZoo," are actual specimens, photographs, lithographs, watercolors, oils, ceramics and sculptures too numerous and diverse to point out.
Capturing my attention immediately upon entering the exhibit and continuing throughout are the amazing wildlife photographs by Sally Eagle and Dan Mead, award-winning photographers who continue to travel worldwide with camera and patience. "Ambush in the Pantanal," filmed by Eagle in South America in the world's largest wetland, is the first-ever video taken of a panther stalking and overtaking a caiman (think alligator-crocodile). The video, by the way, runs continually while the exhibit is open, free to visitors with museum admission.
Without a doubt, Mead's photograph of an ostrich family climbing an almost impossibly steep sand dune in Namibia is by far my favorite. Mead explains the image was taken around noontime, the worst time of day to be photographing in a desert.
A stunning, life-like rhinoceros head, cast in bronze by award-winning French artist Quentin Garel, is one of the centerpieces of the African savannah area of the gallery, along with a hard-to-miss giraffe (neck and head), also of bronze, which looks as if it were carved from a tree trunk. More bronze sculptures by Garel are appropriately placed in the galleries and include an expressive turtle and a realistic ostrich.
Other contemporary artists are included in the exhibition with illustrator Barry Moser depicting a cunning alligator and a smiling monkey; the monkey print is on view alongside a piece, "Three Primates" by Turi MacCombie, in the area dedicated to apes. Beautiful drawings of birds by Jada Fitch are featured in the aviary area and the bronze sculpture, "Walktopus" by Scott Musgrove, is a humorous addition in the aquarium section, where you will also find a live monitor lizard.
Augmenting objects on loan are numerous pieces gleaned from the museum's natural history, art and history collections, chosen by staff members and Jason Verchot, Berkshire Museum's exhibition manager and curator of "ArtZoo."
"Many of the objects are from the museum's permanent collection. 'ArtZoo' is a creative way for us to share some of these rarely seen items with our audience," said Verchot, who added every person on staff contributed time, energy and expertise to make this show possible.
And with interactive learn-while-playing stations for the young set, as well as us older visitors, it is cause for a family outing. Activities for kids and families visiting "ArtZoo" include an animal riddle game, and a zoo quest through the galleries, and Animal Yoga (poses such as Downward Dog, Butterfly Pose, Cobra Pose and many more).
Visitors of all ages will learn amazing new things about the birds and beasts around them, and be delighted while doing so. Just remember it is only on view until May 1.
Thom Smith welcomes your questions and comments. Email him at Naturewatch@live.com or write him care of The Berkshire Eagle, 75 S. Church St., Pittsfield, MA 01201.