Douglas Crane: What would Zenas say?
DALTON — I wish to add my voice to the conversation that has been spurred in recent weeks regarding the decision taken by the Board of Trustees to secure the future of the Berkshire Museum and build further on its mission to serve the community. I have been asked on several occasions "What would Zenas Crane think of these developments" and oddly, I have also noted that some people have taken to speculating how he would have reacted.
As a member of the Crane family — one in a long line of Crane family members who have had the honor to serve on the Berkshire Museum board — I would like to offer my perspective on that question.
In reality, of course, this question cannot be answered. However, if we were to consider this man and his objectives when he established the museum in 1903, I think we can find an approximation.
Zenas Crane is credited with having had a keen business mind and, together with his younger brother, Winthrop, they propelled the family paper business in two key areas, that of fine stationery (Zenas) and U.S. currency paper (Winthrop). In addition to business, they were also quite active in politics and philanthropy.
At their father's (also named Zenas) wishes, upon his death, they established the Berkshire Home for Aged Women in 1888 — renamed today, thank goodness, as Berkshire Place. In 1900, Zenas founded the Pittsfield Boys' (and now Girls') Club, and in 1903, he founded the Berkshire Museum — which he referred to as the Berkshire Museum of Natural History and Art.
If actions speak louder than words, than it can certainly be said that Zenas was a man who had the charity of his community in his mind and his purpose. Upon his death, he was described as a sterling New Englander, modest, generous, genial, and a reliable factor in promoting the best interests of his town, region, and state. It is gratifying to us all to see that all three of the organizations which Zenas helped to launch are still with us today and serving our community so wonderfully.
An avid collector and with a variety of interests, Zenas aspired to populate the museum with a wide-ranging collection, including art and historic objects, as well as a myriad of natural specimens. His intention was to provide the citizens of Berkshire County with their own museum in order to learn, be inspired, and enjoy.
It is likely not well known, but it is now important to understand, that over the course of much of the following 114 years, the museum was the beneficiary of regular support from the Crane family and this allowed it to cover its annual operating expenses. Many will recall that admission to the museum was free until about 25 years ago, and yet it did not historically run a deficit.
Today, times have certainly changed. Our community is very different, our community's needs are very different, and the annual, anonymous check is no longer here. As has been stated, for the past 20 years, the museum has run a deficit, one that is growing.
While the museum's unusual, original "business model" failed to keep up, its original mission remains valid and its role in strengthening the fabric of the community has never been more important.
As described elsewhere, the Berkshire Museum is facing a very real threat to its continued existence. The Board of Trustees, the staff, and a host of additional participants have contributed to an exhaustive process of assessing the needs of the community and the role the museum should play. They then matched this against the current state to determine a plan for establishing a sustainable museum, one that is relevant and that is going to inspire our kids, families and visitors for the next 114 years.
The hard part about realizing this exciting future is that we must part with some treasured pieces of the artwork in the museum's collection. This one point has certainly garnered a great deal of reaction, both negative and supportive, and understandably so. It holds great meaning for many of us, but it also holds the future of the museum and a great deal more meaning for those who have yet to walk through its doors.
So, what would Zenas say? I suspect he would counsel us to consider what is in the best interest of the city and the region. That the very special social mission of the museum should be a guidepost to help us through difficult decisions and finally, that we should be respectful of each other's opinions but pay attention to facts and be diligent with our numbers. I am also certain that he would express his appreciation for those who work so hard and give so much to chart a course for the museum through a difficult sea.
I, for one, am very grateful to see that action is being taken to secure the future and I offer my thanks to and appreciation for the hard-working staff at the Berkshire Museum as well as my sincere gratitude to the supporters, past, present, and future of the museum: it is a true treasure.
Douglas Crane is a member of the Berkshire Museum's Board of Trustees.
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