|Location||Pittsfield, Berkshire County, Massachusetts, United States|
|Collections||Natural history, art, ancient Egyptian mummy, Babylonian art|
The Berkshire Museum, founded by local paper magnate Zenas Crane, opened in 1903. The building was designed by the local architect Henry Seaver. Crane built the museum as a cultural donation to the people of Western Massachusetts, inspired by such institutions as the American Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Thanks in large part to Crane's efforts, the broad and varied collections of Berkshire Museum include objects from virtually every continent, from important fine art and sculpture to natural science specimens and ancient artifacts. When Ellen Crane, his wife, died in 1934, she left a bequest of $100,000 to the museum.
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Crane purchased many of Berkshire Museum's first acquisitions, including a sizable group of paintings from the revered Hudson River School. Significant works by Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Edwin Church figure prominently in the collection.
The diverse collections also boast artifacts of ancient history and natural science: fossil collections, a 143-pound meteorite, an ancient Egyptian mummy named Pahat, shards of Babylonian cuneiform tablets, samplings of early Mediterranean jewelry, and representations of Berkshire ecosystems including local mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, insects, plants, and minerals.
Berkshire Museum is the repository for objects associated with the lives of well-known figures in American history. The first successful expedition to the North Pole by Robert E. Peary and Matthew Henson in 1908 and 1909 was supported by Crane, and Henson's whole-body fur suit, the sledge that made the trip, and other equipment from the venture found a home at Berkshire Museum. The writing desk of Nathanial Hawthorne and the musket believed to have belonged to Israel Bissell (a cohort of Paul Revere who made a midnight ride to Philadelphia to warn that "The British are coming!") also are part of the extensive permanent collection.
Berkshire Museum has exhibited works by some of the most accomplished artists from the United States and abroad: Gilbert Stuart, Rembrandt Peale, John Singleton Copley, Thomas Sully, Paul Cézanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and John Singer Sargent. In the 1930s, under director Laura Bragg, the Berkshire Museum was the first to commission two site-specific mobiles (then a unique form of art) from Alexander Calder, who became one of the most significant artists in the 20th century. The mobiles can be seen in the theater, on either side of the proscenium. In the 1950s, the Berkshire Museum was the first to display the work of Norman Rockwell as well as pieces by artists that challenged convention, such as Andy Warhol, Red Grooms, Robert Rauschenberg, Ellsworth Kelly, and Nancy Graves.
Berkshire Museum continues to add to the collections through purchase and gift. In the 21st-century, acquisitions have focused on artists with national and international reputations who have strong connections to the Berkshires: Gregory Crewdson, Peter Garfield, Chet Kalm, Morgan Bulkeley, Stephen Hannock, and others.
Well-known institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mystic Seaport, the Smithsonian Institution, the Guggenheim, and the Tate Gallery have all borrowed objects from Berkshire Museum's collections. Original exhibitions created and curated by Berkshire Museum staff, incorporating items from the collections, travel to other museums.
Norman Rockwell, Shuffleton's Barbershop, 1950
Thomas Dewing, The White Dress, 1901
Robert Reid, The Trio, 1898
William-Adolphe Bouguereau, The Horseback Ride, 1884
Albert Bierstadt, Giant Redwood Trees of California, 1874
In 2008, Berkshire Museum completed Phase II of an extensive renovation which included the replacement of the copper roof, the new 3,000-square-foot Feigenbaum Hall of Innovation, the restoration of the fireplace and Stirling Calder fountain in the art deco Crane Room, and the installation of a heating, ventilation, and cooling (HVAC) system. Further renovations were completed in 2014.
The Feigenbaum Hall of Innovation opened in March 2008. This new hall falls in line with the museum's traditional "curiosity cabinet" appeal and is dedicated to local innovators.
A member of the Smithsonian Affiliations, in October 2014, Berkshire Museum's beloved "Dino Dig" paleontology exhibition was replaced by Spark!Lab, a hands-on, inventors laboratory space developed by the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the National Museum of American History.
In July 2017, the Board of Directors at the Berkshire Museum, facing a $10 million expense to renovate the museum and a significant reduction in their endowment, announced a plan to sell a portion of their art collection including two Norman Rockwell paintings, Blacksmith's Boy - Heel and Toe (Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop), 1940, and Shuffleton's Barbershop (1950). They contracted with Sotheby's to auction a total of 40 pieces from their collection. The estimated proceeds from the sale would be $50 million. The proposed sale of art to solve the institution's financial problems has created considerable controversy not only among the residents of Berkshire County, but within the larger art world. The Massachusetts Attorney General's brief of October 30, 2017 supported opposition to the sale and joined the plaintiffs in court.
On November 1, 2017, before a packed courthouse, Judge John A. Agostini heard arguments on both sides of the controversy centered on the right of the plaintiffs to sue. His ruling was published on November 7, 2017, denying the plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction and dismissing the non-governmental plaintiffs for lack of standing. Nevertheless, the Massachusetts Appeals Court granted a temporary injunction to halt the sale that expired on December 11, 2017. The sale is opposed by members of the museum as well as the descendants of Norman Rockwell (who donated work to the museum allegedly with the understanding that it would always remain at the museum). Museum organizations condemned the plan to sell the items, with the state's lawyers asserting that the museum intended to sell nearly all of its valuable art to subsidize operating and other expenses. The matter remains in limbo with ongoing legal action within the Massachusetts Court system.