In 1903 – before The Clark, before Jacob’s Pillow, and long before Mass MoCA – Zenas Crane (of Crane & Co. paper) founded the Berkshire Museum. “He wanted to create a cultural beacon in the heart of the Berkshires,” explains the Museum’s executive director Van Shields. “He was proud of the American experience and collected American art, objects, and specimens, including Hudson River School paintings, Native American art and artifacts, and natural history specimens from the Berkshires.” But Crane also had a vision to create a “window on the world” for the citizens of Berkshire County, and he made sure that the Museum’s collection included European and Asian art, as well as antiquities from Egypt and Rome.
As it turns out, Crane’s eclectic collecting habits actually prepared the Museum well for the 21st century. “Interdisciplinary education has become the Holy Grail in our public schools, colleges, and museums; and it has become the Berkshire Museum’s signature,” says Shields, who became executive director in 2011. “Led by our director of interpretation Maria Mingalone, we have begun to really differentiate ourselves by using our diverse collection to illustrate connections between objects and ideas, culture and nature. This cross-pollination is our focus as we design exhibits for our adult visitors as well as for our many school-age museum goers.”
This approach resonates especially well in the Berkshires, where the intersections between the arts and the natural world have for a long time been a robust piece of our regional identity. For a museum in such a context, Shields says, BerkShares complete the picture. Visitors can now spend BerkShares on Museum membership and admission, in the gift shop, or at the box office of the Little Cinema. “What could be better than money that has history on the front and artwork on the back? I mean, really!”
“They’re not only beautiful, but the idea is beautiful,” Shields elaborates. “We’re so proud to be part of this effort. Economic gardening really starts in your backyard, and we really like the way that BerkShares create a virtuous circle, in which we can recirculate money in our local economy.” Shields is dedicated to aligning the Museum’s business philosophy with its educational approach, and seeks to keep it creative and local. “We do as much as possible to shop locally for everything, from services to the products in our gift shop, where we feature local ceramicists, jewelers, authors, publishers, crafts and toys.”
And the artwork? “One of our newest gallery spaces, BerkshireNow, is reserved for showing the work of artists living and working in the Berkshires—artists like Warner Friedman and Janet Rickus” (whose work is featured on the BerkShares bills.) However, the Museum also continues to be a window on the wider world. This summer, Shields invites visitors to the “Immortal Present” exhibition, which showcases over 350 different pieces of East Asian art—ranging from ancient to contemporary and exploring themes of landscape, spirituality, and the pleasures of everyday life... even venturing into the territory of myths and dragons.
Shields, former Chair of Berkshire Creative, is not afraid of the economic dragons that have beset Pittsfield. He believes in the power of collaboration and big ideas like BerkShares. “I hope that other Pittsfield businesses are inspired by us to participate in BerkShares. People are always delightfully surprised that there are so many places to spend the money. And it just goes ’round and ’round!”