Linda Kaye-Moses: Still time for museum to avert a tragedy

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PITTSFIELD — There is a question that is being asked today in The Berkshires; what is it that we value in our county? Answering that question, as someone who has made this county home for over 45 years, is easy, and is based on the reason for having moved here initially.

The Berkshires are beautiful in so many ways; abundant and luxuriant forests, walking trails, lakes, clean air and a rural ambience, coupled with numerous possibilities for more cosmopolitan experiences. But while that is accurate, it is incomplete.

What is missing from that description is the range of cultural experiences available in our county, including a remarkable number of museums for an area the size our our county and for what each of those institutions offers.

Community ignored

Which brings me to the point of this commentary. We, who treasure the museums, have been excluded from a discussion and subsequent decision to substantially and radically change the content and, indeed, the very nature of one of our most treasured museums, a museum that by its iconic name, Berkshire Museum, represents and holds in trust for us (or should), a collection that was donated for the praiseworthy and sole purpose of offering the people of Berkshire County the opportunity to expand their horizons through exposure to a superb art collection and an eclectic choice of anthropological and natural history objects.

The current director and board seem to have discounted the true value of the museum's collection, and by doing so have demonstrated a limited, or even a complete lack of, awareness of the devotion of the community to that collection. The decision to deaccession the most important objects in its collection disregarded the benefits derived from exposure to the very best and most appreciated of its art pieces.

Salvatore Settis, an art historian and the author of "If Venice Dies," in an interview for National Geographic (Oct. 16, 2016), in speaking of Venice (much of which can easily and generically be applied to The Shires) states, "the most dreadful danger for a city now is loss of memory. By loss of memory, I mean not forgetting that we exist, but who we are."

If the board wants a digitized museum it should build one elsewhere in the county. Settis describe a project which was proposed for Venice, that would create a theme park about Venice on one of the islands of its lagoon. He says, " Venice is able to tell its own history. We have no need to create a fake Doge's Palace in order to tell the history of Venice. We have the real Doge's Palace!"— just as we have the historically grounded and beloved Berkshire Museum.

He speaks of the beauty of the city as not just the aesthetics, but the harmony of its architecture within its environment, and the necessity of preserving that for future generations. Venice's existence, of course, is threatened by flooding. The threat to the existence of the museum is the unwillingness of the director and the board to reconsider the decision to "monetize" the art and de-construct the building itself.

Once 40 of the museum's most precious art pieces have been auctioned they will disappear into private collections, removed from public purview, never to be seen again by the population for whom it was originally intended, and given in trust to our Berkshire community. It may not be clear to those who have made this decision, but the Berkshire community feels ownership of this art, through the course of many generations of adults and children who have viewed it. The experience of being present with art that could only be seen at the Berkshire Museum and nowhere else, conveyed that sense of ownership.

This art work has become as comfortable as a well-worn sweater, welcomed on a cheerless winter day; and at the same time, remaining exhilarating, infusing the community of artists and other art-lovers with the warmth of inspiration.

The building itself is solidly and beautifully satisfying the eye with its archaic, though not outworn architectural style. It is a symbol of times when the thought of a structure was as important as the structure itself and what it would contain. This structure absorbed that importance grandly and with grace.

We have seen the disappearance of many such structures over the course of many decades, disappearances recommended as financially expedient. The loss of these is a canyon lined with regret, from which it is impossible to recover. They are gone forever. To add the museum and its unique architecture to this sad list would be tragic.

Take a step back

Unfortunately, despite attempts to accomplish this, there has been no public forum on these issues, and the museum has, so far, made no effort to initiate such an event. The museum, as a private trust, does not have to acknowledge the need for a forum and cannot be compelled to participate in one, and the community, or any coalition within the community, cannot insist.

If, however, it becomes evident that the museum has violated its responsibility to maintain the museum and its art for the public, it then becomes incumbent on any in the community to oppose and protest the sale of the art and the intended deconstruction of this venerable and valued institution.

It is past time for the museum board to take a step back, review its alternatives with a renewed perspective, in concert with a concerned community. I encourage the board to re-examine the extent of the loss of the art and the magnitude of the alteration of the institution that the plan in process would create. It is now time to become the creative organization that the museum must be in order to enable future generations to share the delights of this grand old museum.

Linda Kaye-Moses is an occasional Eagle contributor.


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