Berkshire Museum exhibit gives closer look at how women shaped history
'She Shapes History!' open now through May 25, 2020
When Laura M. Bragg arrived in Pittsfield in 1931, she was already a pioneer in the fields of museum education and administration.
Just over a decade earlier, in 1920, Bragg made history when she was named director of the Charleston Museum in South Carolina, becoming the first woman to run a publicly-funded art museum in the U.S. She would serve as the Berkshire Museum's first director, from 1931 to 1939, where she would commission and display works by a young local artist, Alexander Calder; put together one of the first exhibitions of Shaker Furniture and refine her traveling educational museum exhibits, known as Bragg Boxes, which brought the museum into rural classrooms.
Bragg, who transformed the Berkshire Museum from a "storage vault" filled with Zenas Crane's collections into a modern museum, is just one of dozens of women profiled in "She Shapes History!," the Berkshire Museum's newly opened exhibit celebrating the upcoming 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment becoming law, giving women the right to vote. (The 19th Amendment was passed by Congress on June 4, 1919, but did not become law until it was officially adopted on Aug. 26, 1920.)
The exhibit, which centers around the Women's Suffrage Movement and the centennial celebration, chronicles some 200 years of American history, examining "women's work" in the 19th century homestead and how, later, advances in technology and travel helped usher in a new era of mobility for women, both in the workplace and in society. To illustrate that timeline, the show uses an assortment of historical items and artwork culled from the museum's collection, as well as items on loan from Hancock Shaker Village, the Berkshire Historical Society and private collectors.
"We tried to really focus it on items from the collection that haven't really been out on display in a while," said Kendra Knisley, experience coordinator.
Pulling from the museum's vast collection of portraits, the curatorial team selected images of women and set to work on telling the stories of the women who sat for the artists, including John Singer Sargent's 1887 "Portrait of Mrs. Raphael Pumpelly."
"We actually tried to put actual names to these women, not just 'Mrs. Raphael Pumpelly,' but Eliza Shepherd [Pumpelly]," Knisley said. "[We tried to find out] who was she and what's her story? We only had one, the 'New York Belle,' which we couldn't find a name for."
Items such as a bicycle and a velocipede, an early form of the bicycle, pulled from the museum's collection, help tell the story of how a simple mode of transportation opened up the world to women.
"It's a very ordinary day-to-day object, but the story behind it is really important," said Lesley Beck, research and content development manager. "The bicycle made a world of difference. It was a mode of transportation that was accessible, inexpensive and, in the 1890s, it made a huge difference to people who were able to move around in their world, because it was affordable. It's just part of the story. We were able to have a range of objects but connect them all to the lives of women through the period of the Suffrage Movement and on to today, as women continue to achieve."
To tell the story of how women moved from the hearth-side kitchen of the early 19th century to the factories and offices of the early 20th century, the team took a deep dive into what technological and societal changes were happening during that time period.
To do that, museum staff resurrected part of a house, which belonged to Dr. Timothy Childs of Pittsfield, which originally made up a major portion of the museum's local history display in the past.
"The idea was to set the scene as to what women's lives were like as they got closer to 1848 and the Seneca Falls Convention, that organization of the Women's Suffrage Movement. It's background, but it's fascinating and it's very much representative of New England," Beck said. "We're able to use a lot of wonderful items from the collection to set the scene of this 1800s household."
A display of early telephones, sewing machines and typewriters examines the role advances in technology had on the role of women in society.
"These were things that made it possible for women to move into the workplace. And it also changed communication. Another thing that changed during the Suffrage Movement was train travel," she said. "All of these advances in technology, from the early 1800s up until the turn of the century started to really change the way people were traveling, communicating, working outside the home. This was all fuel for the Suffrage Movement."
She added, "The combination of the history and the art work helps tell the story; while the science and technology is that special voice of the Berkshire Museum — [those] interdisciplinary interpretations that we always try to bring into the exhibitions. This [exhibition] was an opportunity to do something around the Women's Suffrage Movement, but also open it up a little bit and create some context with some great objects."
Items on loan from Hancock Shaker Village will help tell the story of the Shaker Sisters, while three items on loan from the Berkshire Historical Society help show the progression of women's fashion from the 1840s to the 1900s.
Other items on display include World War II-era posters emphasizing women's participation in the war efforts, sewing samplers from 1800 and 1804 by Laura Sherril, of Richmond, and Abigail Bassett, of Lee, a 1934 Corona typewriter used by Frances Palmer, and founder of the museum's children's department and programs.
There's also a display highlighting Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Freeman and Bragg.
"We wanted to remind people what an innovator she was and how important her contribution was to this museum," Beck said of Bragg.
From more modern times, there's work by renowned artist and Pittsfield native Nancy Graves and signs that traveled to the 2017 Women's March in Washington D.C.
The exhibit also offers some interactive pieces, including a weaving loom, a photo op with women from one of the Suffrage marches and voting booths.
"She Shapes History" is on view through May 25, 2020.
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