Wednesday's announcement that the Berkshire Museum has launched an ambitious program to recapitalize itself and update its mission is welcome news to Berkshire County residents and visitors. The museum has been a valued institution in the county's midst for over a century, but in recent years has found itself in the shadows of prestigious local attractions such as Mass MoCA and the Clark Art Institute. This program should put it squarely in the light.
The 114-year-old museum's traditional purpose has been to expose visitors to the arts, science and history through its extensive and eclectic collection of artworks, miscellaneous objects, and other exhibits, but the experience to date has been "walk-through," rather than "immersive," in the words of Van Shields, the museum's executive director.
the museum, Mr. Shields told The Eagle, is suffering from an "identity crisis" that needed to be addressed. Over a two-year period, Mr. Shields and the museum's board of trustees sought input from focus groups, consultants and various stakeholders to inform a decision to radically redesign the way the institution presents itself, its collection, and to overhaul the character of its outreach.
In addition, Mr. Shields and the board have decided to rid the museum, once and for all, of its chronic undercapitalization problem, and to put in place an endowment that will ensure its financial health in perpetuity.
These noble goals will cost a great deal of money — an anticipated $20 million to revamp the museum both architecturally and in terms of the visitor experience — and another $40 million to establish an endowment whose proceeds will provide operating funds into the future. To raise this capital, the trustees have decided to sell off some 40 works from the museum's art collection, including two works of Norman Rockwell, "Shuffleton's Barbershop" and "Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop."
While the sacrificing of such valuable works is potentially controversial, the sale — provided it raises the anticipated funds — makes sense when viewed within the larger context of the Berkshire Museum's newly revamped guiding concept. Realistically, with the Norman Rockwell Museum mere miles away, Rockwells at a Pittsfield museum are redundant anyway.
According to Mr. Shields, the various components of its collection will be presented in a coherent way and in multiple contexts that will inspire visitors of all ages to think critically and develop their own takeaways. Active teaching laboratories employing state-of-the-art technology will engage and develop a sense of wonder in students, and exhibits will concentrate on participation rather than detached observation. Science and history will continue to be a focus but within a contemporary context. In light of this mission, the museum decided that the Rockwells and other artwork, while monetarily valuable, were not central to this philosophy and would be better exploited as a revenue source to implement the museum's new broader vision.
The conceptual framework, already developed by a collaborative process between the museum and the community it serves, will ultimately be fleshed out as the program moves into the execution phase. However, concrete and easy-to-grasp improvements include a complete revamping of the historic museum building's interior that will enclose a majestic lobby and public space, which is being billed as a community center where people can gather and even hold events. Of more interest to children, perhaps, is the fact that Wally the stegosaurus will be relocated indoors, rescued from the predations of the elements.
This bold new program for the Berkshire Museum, long in incubation, has been thought-out in a sensible and realistic way and reflects a realistic assessment of what the museum must do to not only survive but to thrive. As Director Shields said, "The museum has long been overdue for a reboot."
There is no question that the Berkshire Museum possesses a valuable asset in its rich and varied collection. The intention to use it as a teaching tool in a relevant, coherent and inspiring manner that will both enrich the community and move the Berkshire Museum into the front rank of institutions that have given the Berkshires an identity second to none as a vibrant center for arts and culture.