Jeff Rodgers: Berkshire Museum's endless stories
PITTSFIELD — As a child, my grandmother would trek from Brooklyn into Manhattan to visit the American Museum of Natural History. That was in the 1920s. A decade later, my grandfather would take her on dates to the museum. Remember, back in the 1930s, in the Great Depression, there weren't many televisions and no Internet. If my grandparents wanted to see the world beyond their horizon, one of the best ways to do it was to visit a museum.
So in 1993, when my grandmother came to visit me at the end of my first week working at that American Museum of Natural History, it was a homecoming of sorts. As we stood in front of Carl Akeley's gorilla diorama in the Hall of African Mammals, she recalled the crowds that would gather in that very spot to be transported to the Virunga Mountains. She and my grandfather would stand in front of that diorama for hours, imagining that they were on safari.
By the end of the 19th century, museums had begun popping up in America's bustling cities. Wealthy patrons funded expeditions to the corners of the earth to collect plants, animals and fossils, rocks and relics, fine art and artifacts. America's great museums became windows on the world for everyone, including poor, young dreamers from Bay Ridge and Hell's Kitchen, like my grandparents.
But this wasn't happening only in the big cities. In a few smaller, less bustling places, people like Zenas Crane, inspired by the Smithsonian, the Met and the Museum of Natural History, established museums for their communities. Crane collected things that chronicled and captured the essence of a multifaceted world — rocks and fossils that hinted at Earth's distant past, cuneiform tablets and Egyptian mummies that spoke to rich, diverse cultural histories, art and artifacts that captured moments in time and celebrated humanity's creative endeavors. These things were collected so that people could experience what my grandparents experienced in front of those gorillas. Crane was very explicit about aiming to provide a "window on the world" to the people of the Berkshires.
Over time, many smaller, eclectic museums didn't survive. Bigger museums gobbled up their collections. Television and then the Internet provided people with access to the wider world from the comfort of their homes, and then, wherever they carried a screen. Underfunded and underutilized, by the end of the 20th century smaller museums were becoming an endangered species.
PIONEER NEW WAYS
The museums that survived did so with the help of dedicated communities, committed boards, volunteers, and staff and a little pluck. They pioneered new ways to engage with students and teachers and kids and families. They partnered with other museums. They thought creatively about the objects they cared for and re-imagined museums as places where people — all people — could engage in authentic experiences, connecting with real objects and real people and real ideas in real time.
The Berkshire Museum is one of those places.
I made a new connection on my first day at the Berkshire Museum. Louis Paul Jonas, the artist behind the museum's Animals of the World in Miniature exhibit, studied under the same Carl Akeley whose gorillas inspired my grandparents' imagined safari. Here at the museum, in miniature, were two gorillas in the jungles of the Virunga Mountains — the very scene that's been connecting my family to the wider world, and to museums, for generations.
The Berkshire Museum today is a different place than it was when Jonas was sculpting gorillas, and it will continue to evolve while staying true to its mission.
With its eclectic collection spanning the natural sciences, human history, and artistic expression, the Berkshire Museum doesn't just have a story to tell; through its 40,000 objects, each with a myriad of ideas embedded within it, the Berkshire Museum has endless stories to tell, making connections to everything from subatomic particles to fine art. And that's what makes this moment in time so special for the museum and all those within its reach.
Thoughtful conversations about the museum's future over the past couple of years have coalesced into some key goals: activate the collections, unleashing the museum's full range of ideas; think creatively and innovate new ways to engage the full spectrum of audiences; weave the arts, the sciences, and history into new, unified narratives that celebrate the remarkable interconnectedness of our world and encourage new thinking in our visitors.
Over the next couple of years, we will invest our time, talent, and resources into developing innovative new ways to realize these goals. But even as we move forward, the core characteristics that have come to define the museum will guide us.
The Berkshire Museum will continue to be a collaborative partner to the educational community, a cultural, social, and intellectual hub for the region, a source of inspiration to the scientifically, historically, and artistically minded, and a place where everyone can engage with things and people that connect them, if not to African gorillas, to places, times and ideas that broaden horizons in ways that only a museum can.
Jeff Rodgers is executive director of the Berkshire Museum.
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