At Berkshire Museum, a world of wonders unfolds in a zoo unlike any other
PITTSFIELD — You could say the Berkshire Museum's newest exhibit — filled with an extensive selection of photography, sculpture, paintings, skeletons, taxidermy and one living lizard — is a bit of a zoo.
And it is. An ArtZoo, actually.
Drawing from the museum's diverse art and science collection, curators have created an exotic exhibit designed for a family fun excursion.
"It's not strictly art, it's not strictly science," said Jason Verchot, the museum's exhibition manager and curator of the ArtZoo exhibit, which opens Saturday and is on display through May 1. "Using a zoo layout, we were able to group by large orders, or families of animal species, and put items together that have never been paired together."
The exhibit is broken up into four galleries, its flow guided by zoo-like fences through groupings of the animal kingdom. The first stop is the big cats and dogs gallery, where the museum's large collection of taxidermy is on full display alongside vivid photographs of lions in the wild by award-winning wildlife photographers Sally Eagle and Dan Mead. Eagle's film "Ambush in the Pantanal" will be playing on loop on a large screen — giving visitors the opportunity to see a jaguar attacking a caiman.
This mix of media in one exhibit — filled with nearly 300 different pieces all representing animals — allows aspiring zoologists to get a better idea of what these animals are really like, said Lesley Ann Beck, director of communications at the museum.
One such show stopper, as Beck and Verchot call these large exhibit pieces, is an actual polar bear pelt laid out on a platform — its giant claws stretched out toward the edges of the zoo fence.
"How do you appreciate the scale of this creature without being able to stand next to this?" Beck asks, as she admires the bear's life-like expression, frozen in an open-mouthed snarl.
Verchot hopes that using life-like items, such as taxidermy or the true-to-life bronze sculptures by French artist Quentin Garel, will give perspective and breathe life into the animals beyond what a two-dimensional piece of artwork can do alone.
Garel's sculpture of a rhinoceros head anchors the second gallery space, where mammal works are housed. The bronze piece is one of three of Garel's on loan for the exhibit — a 9-foot giraffe head looms near by and an expressive turtle head lurks around another gallery corner. It's difficult not to stand next to these large pieces, and wonder what it's like to be that close to the real, living animal.
It's this sense of wonder curators hope to capture in family members of all ages, said Maria Mingalone, director of curatorial affairs and collections.
"When you see these animals to scale, that's when the real magic happens — with real objects," she said. "It's what we love about being in a museum."
This ArtZoo is not just about seeing, however. With a number of hands-on activities for all ages, there's plenty to do. In the mammals room, little animal lovers can try yoga poses named for the animals that inspired each move. In the bird gallery, bird lovers and watchers of all levels can grab a pair of binoculars and see if they can spot all 50 taxidermy birds perched in cardboard trees. Learn about nests by grabbing some available art supplies and weaving them into an overs-sized fake nest, complete with giant egg pillows.
"[This exhibit] is about finding lots of entry points," said Mingalone. "That way people of different backgrounds, different interests can connect with something here. We're appealing to all the senses."
And what zoo is complete without an actual live animal? For a surprising twist, the final gallery of reptiles houses the ArtZoo's main attraction — an Asian water monitor lizard, the second largest lizard after the Komodo dragon.
"He's very interactive," said Beck. "He follows people with his eyes."
The 3-month-old lizard is currently on loan from New England Reptile Distributors in Plaistow, N.H., living on display in the center of the gallery with glass windows at the perfect height for little visitors. He doesn't seem to mind being the center of attention, posing against the glass, stretching his claws and flicking his long, thin tongue.
Next to the lizard's exhibit is a large unidentified snake skin — in nearly perfect condition — that Verchot said was found rolled up in the museum's collections.
"Some of these things we had no idea they existed," he said, standing over the unrolled skin, which is longer than the 10-foot case that protects it. Most of the museum's collection is catalogued, Verchot said, but some of the natural science collection remains a mystery.
Curating this exhibit gave them a chance to find and highlight things once forgotten, he said. Around each gallery are intricate "Bragg boxes" depicting different animals in their habitat in miniature form. The boxes, easily accessible for children to peer into, were created by and named for the museum's first director, Laura Bragg, who made more than 60 of these mini-exhibits as educational tools and traveled the county showing them.
Another find includes a painting of bighorn sheep by wildlife artist Carl Rungius. The dreamy landscape of the Rockies is dotted with large sheep, their imposing horns tall and strong. Above the painting is a mount of a real sheep's horn, the juxtaposition is the perfect marriage of traditional art and natural science to fully represent the image of one animal.
Exactly, Verchot said, what this exhibit set out to do.
"We hope people come here and have fun," he said. "That they learn something, get inspired. Art is more interesting to children in an immersive experience like this."
If you go
What: “ArtZoo.” A menagerie of animals in photography, sculpture, painting, ceramic and video
When: Saturday through May 1. Preview party 5-7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Berkshire Museum, 39 South St., Pittsfield
Museum hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; noon-5 Sunday
Admission: $13 adult; $6 child; free, museum members and children 3 and under
Preview party: $10 adults; $5 children; free, museum members. Reservations — (413) 443-7171, extension 313
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