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In 1903, Berkshire Museum founder Zenas Crane, inspired by such institutions as the American Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, decided to blend the best attributes of these establishments in a new museum for the people of Western Massachusetts. 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.
As the third-generation owner of Crane & Company, a paper manufacturer that was (and continues to be) the official supplier of paper to the U.S. Treasury, Crane invested his wealth in his community. He actively sought out art and artifacts for Berkshire Museum, and encouraged the development of collections that would bring home to the Berkshires a wide cross-section of the world’s wonders. Berkshire Museum became a “window on the world.”
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 were a part of this early collection.
The diverse collections also boast artifacts of ancient history and natural science: fossil collections, a 143-pound meteorite, an Egyptian mummy, 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 Nathaniel 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, 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, Morgan Bulkeley, Stephen Hannock, Tom Patti, and others.
Well-known institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mystic Seaport, the Smithsonian Institution, the Guggenheim, and the Tate Gallery have all borrowed objects from Berkshire Museum’s fine collections. Original exhibitions created and curated by Berkshire Museum staff, incorporating items from the collections, have traveled to other museums. Armed and Dangerous: Art of the Arsenal traveled to the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in Memphis, Tennessee, in 2012.
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, and the installation of a heating, ventilation, and cooling (HVAC) system.