Museums are full of different artifacts from throughout history displayed for the public to see, but much like any home, there’s also a lot in storage. For the Berkshire Museum, this means over 40,000 objects in an extensive collection that exists right under its attendees’ feet.
In this digital exclusive, Zydalis Bauer goes behind the scenes as Collections Experience Manager Jason Vivori gives us a view behind the curtain at some of the artifacts housed in the Berkshire Museum basement.
Read the Full Transcript:
Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: I know that the Berkshire Museum currently has a podcast hosted by Craig Langlois that’s titled What’s in the Basement? And so I think something that I forget and probably a lot of people don’t realize is that there are so many more collections and artifacts that exist than what we see in museums. So talk to me about some of the really cool things that are in the basement and maybe one of your favorite or most recent discoveries.
Jason Vivori, Collections Experience Manager: One of the really great objects that we found recently, as we were, as we’re doing our cataloging process and we’re uncovering things, we found records for a – a model of a Chinese tomb. And it said it was red granite, but it didn’t really match anything we had available. But then I had a kind of remembering in one of the aisles, I saw something that was kind of dirty and on the back of a shelf. And I’m like, I think that could be it. And we pulled it out and I cleaned it up and and really looked at it. We were able to discover some information about it. It was really – and we’re still researching it. We’re not done.
It is a model of a Chinese tomb, it’s a really interesting piece. It’s made from a material called Chicken Blood Jade, which is basically a type of soapstone, but it contains levels of cinnabar, which is a composite of mercury, essentially. So it’s, it’s a little bit toxic. You don’t want to be handling it without any sort of – you don’t want to be handling it without gloves, but it’s otherwise pretty safe. But it’s prized in China as a material for making various types of sculpture pieces essentially. We believe this ours dates back to about the 19th century, somewhere in that time frame, and it’s just a really beautiful piece. But it was sitting on the shelf untouched for years and we’re still learning about it.
Zydalis Bauer: And so when you find a piece like this that’s been sitting there untouched, like you said, what goes into researching? Like, how do you even begin to start trying to figure out what this is?
Jason Vivori: Well, we start by honestly doing what everybody does, which is we go to Google first. That’s the first thing we do is start looking for things and getting leads. And once we have a general idea of what we’re looking for, then we’ll try to find an expert. Usually we’ll contact one of the colleges and see if there’s somebody in a particular field. You know, in this case, we look for somebody who was an expert in Chinese art to kind of help us. And when we get to other objects that are more related to a particular culture, you know, and this is cultural in the same sense but, you know, for instance, we have a collection of Islamic swords. We’re going to want to talk to somebody from that culture, right? Who has an expert, but also comes from the culture, because we want to make sure that we’re getting a viewpoint which is not Eurocentric on everything. So we really want to make sure that we’re really collecting the best information we can.
Zydalis Bauer: And then you mentioned that most museums really only have about 5% of their artifacts on display. Why is that the case? And what goes into being able to bring other artifacts on display in the museum? How do you rotate things?
Jason Vivori: Exhibitions — It’s all through the exhibition planning process, like, you know, you only have so much space to display things and the way things are in storage, we have these compact shelving units that roll back and forth, so you’re only ever able to access one at a time. Things are packed in, in a way that’s not really a displayable and it wouldn’t be enjoyable in a gallery position and we want to have obviously interpretations and every museum is in this position.
Your collections get to be so big and consequently you just can’t put it all in view. So you try to rotate things as much as possible. That’s one of our goals is to make sure that we’re rotating our collection through so we’re constantly changing over sections of our exhibition space, like in certain galleries might be a particular story that will switch out or try to get new objects in for the story, because our goal is to ultimately get everything out on the floor at some point in some sort of rotation.