Zenas Crane founded the Berkshire Museum in 1903 after being inspired by institutions such as the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Crane felt his community could benefit from having something similar to these historical collections.
Known as a “window on the world,” the museum is home to an array of art and artifacts from virtually every continent. From our past right here in western Massachusetts to the ancient world, Collections Experience Manager Jason Vivori sits down with Connecting Point’s Zydalis Bauer to discuss the history of the Berkshire Museum.
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Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: After being inspired by institutions such as the American Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Zenas Crane decided his community could benefit from something similar. And so the Berkshire Museum was founded in 1903, known as “A Window on the World”, the museum boasts an array of art and artifacts from virtually every continent representing the ancient world, as well as our past right here in western Mass. I spoke with Jason Avery, the collection’s experience manager, to learn more about the history of the Berkshire Museum.
Jason Vivori, Collections Experience Manager: Zenas Crane was the grandson of the founder of the Crane Paper Company that makes the paper for federal currency. His goal was essentially to create a wider window on the world we’ve used that phrase quite a bit over the years that I’ve been here. He was trying to bring things to the Berkshires, to Pittsfield that people in the area would not have seen at that time. So making sure we had a collection of art that was representative of a large range of artists and natural history, and he wanted it to be a smaller or scaled down experience of what you would have if you went to one of the big museums like the Smithsonian or the Met.
Zydalis Bauer: And so you mentioned that vision of being a window on the world, and the Berkshire Museum really lives up to that title because it offers virtually objects from every continent in the world, which is amazing. So talk to me about some of the earliest artifacts and objects that were brought to the Berkshire Museum.
Jason Vivori: Well, the earliest artifacts actually go back a little bit earlier. So a little bit of history about the museum — the collections of the Berkshire Museum actually started under the Berkshire Atheneum. The Berkshire Atheneum was sort of like the – at one point was the Berkshire Atheneum and Museum – they were one entity. And it was – it existed back in the 1870s. They had collections of local history objects, for the most part, some art objects, but it was basically things that were donated by local people.
When Zenas Crane came along, he wanted to expand upon that vision and really add that wider window experience. And so he collected artwork from all over the world and cultural objects and other donors as well. His approach was kind of encyclopedic – it was sort of like he was trying to was trying to make sure that we got a good range of things. So it was almost like he had a checklist and he had people who were specifically looking for things from our collection, not just taking things that he had collected himself for, for his own home. These were things that he was collecting specifically for the museum.
A few examples: We have an Egyptian mummy that was kind of a must – it was the kind of viewpoint that to be a real museum you had to have a mummy. We had a painting that’s like a school of Van Dyke, a number of old masters. He also really loved American paintings at the time, so we collected a lot of Hudson River School paintings. We had a good range of things.
Zydalis Bauer: I can’t not talk about this Egyptian mummy because I remember the first visit I went to the Berkshire Museum I was in awe. It was just something about like for me it was staring at the exposed toes of this over 2000 year old person. So it’s amazing the range that exists within the Berkshire Museum.
Jason Vivori: Oh, exactly. And related to that, we have other things in our antiquities collection, not just Egyptian materials, but things from ancient Mesopotamia and things that range as far as China, other areas of the world just really all over the place. The mummy himself, his name is Pahat. We’ve had so much research done on that mummy. You can come see him and learn quite a bit about them.
Zydalis Bauer: And you know, you mentioned having things from all over the world, but I think something that’s also really fascinating one being in New England, we have such direct ties to early American history and the museum also has a lot of artifacts from key prominent figures during that time, including people who have local ties to the Berkshires. Tell me about some of those artifacts that you have in the museum.
Jason Vivori: We have things that go back to colonial times and revolutionary times. We have a cradle and a chair that belonged to Sarah Deming. They were who was sort of the the first pioneer in the area from of those first settlers. And her daughter was the first child born, you know, from one of the colonists. So in Pittsfield, so that’s going back quite a ways.
Zydalis Bauer: And I know that you even have the writing desk of Nathaniel Hawthorne, which also was really interesting to see just right there in person. It’s like such a piece of historic furniture.
Jason Vivori: Yes, that’s an important piece to us in our collection. It is the desk that was at Hawthorne’s Little Red House right here in the Berkshires, where it’s believed that he wrote many of his more well-known works. So it’s just an amazing piece.
Zydalis Bauer: Now, beyond Zenas Crane, who was the founder of Berkshire Museum, what are some of the other key players in the early years of the museum that really made an impact?
Jason Vivori: Look, there’s so many. One of the ones that I think is actually lost to history a bit, and I can’t even say exactly what his impact was, but but it’s present, it’s just omnipresent is Harland Ballard. He was the museum’s first curator, but he was the curator in from like 19, 1903 to 1931, because then that’s when the museum took steps to incorporate as a separate entity from the Atheneum. So he collected a lot of those early historical objects, those cultural objects from this area and a number of other things. You know, he was there in the very early days, so I wish I knew more about them. There’s just not enough there for me so I really want to do some more research there. But I think probably one of the more prominent names in our history is Laura Bragg.
Zydalis Bauer: Yeah, absolutely.
Jason Vivori: She was, you know, our first real director. And she was, you know, just an amazing individual. The things that she collected and added to our collection. She was the first American museum director to display the works of Alexander Calder, and she actually arranged for his first commission for a museum, and that’s right here at the Berkshire Museum. So just amazing. She also collected other things like she she collected works that were gathered by A.E. Gallatin, who – his collection, he was really big on the abstract art movement of the early 20th century. And he was key to getting abstract art to be recognized as art in museums. And those early days, there wasn’t it wasn’t something that was being accepted and she was a big part of that.
Zydalis Bauer: So Jason, you started at the museum as a volunteer back in 2003, and now you have become the collections experience manager and you’ve worked with the museum’s collection of over 40,000 different objects. What are some of your favorite objects and or fascinating stories that you’ve come across during your time at the museum?
Jason Vivori: Oh, there’s so many fascinating stories. My favorite objects are – tend to be from the Egyptian collection I’ve been heavily involved with work with Pahat since I’ve been here when we installed our Ancient Civilizations Gallery back when I was a volunteer and that was had been on view for 20 some odd years, I think, or more than that possibly. I have a very strong connection with Paha. But there are a lot of great stories, a lot of great cultural objects that like things that we just come across.
One of those kind of like fun recently was we found a – just a little rock. It’s a piece of stone, a piece of marble, and there’s a couple of letters on it, but there was a little writing on it, and it referred to it as part of the monument that was erected by the shakers of tearing ham. Over the site where they had buried the devil. That’s what it said. It’s the label isn’t exactly accurate, but it’s referring to an old story that you can read in a number of books. But the first book was Ghosts of Old Berkshire, where the Shakers went through a period sort of where they were trying to reinvigorate their communities and there was sort of these this enactment where they were kind of, you know, spiritually kind of like calling and slaying the devil kind of idea. So there’s no the story is a little bit it’s interesting, it’s fun – It’s certainly a great read.
Zydalis Bauer: I think that’s what I love the most about museums is there’s like you said, it’s this little piece of marble with some writing on it that it’s so easy to overlook, but it has so meaning. It always fascinates me the things that you can find and put in museums.
Jason Vivori: Yes. Another great one is we have this tuba. It’s not a normal looking tuba, It’s called an over-the-shoulder tuba, it’s a Civil War era object. It’s unique. It has a special linkage for the finger pieces, for playing it, for the valves. And they had never they are called pain valves and they had never been added to a tuba before. It’s the only one that we have anywhere there’s a record of it, but also it was carried by a person from Berkshire County in one of these Civil War bands, these marching bands that went in the early days of the Civil War. They kind of – they kind of marched with the units to kind of set the pace. And it’s engraved on the side of it with all the battle sites that was carried to. Just really amazing.
Zydalis Bauer: What would you like to see the legacy of the Berkshire Museum continue to be decades and even centuries to come?
Jason Vivori: I think it really goes back to the museum’s mission to inspire connections and conversations between people when they come in here. We want to we want to make sure that we’re telling stories that are significant and impactful to people and remain so and really touching on that human connection to everything.