Berkshire Museum

Coordinates: 42°26′50″N 73°15′13″W / 42.44722°N 73.25361°W / 42.44722; -73.25361
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Berkshire Museum
Established1903 (1903)
LocationPittsfield, Berkshire County, Massachusetts, United States
Coordinates42°26′50″N 73°15′13″W / 42.44722°N 73.25361°W / 42.44722; -73.25361
CollectionsNatural history, art, ancient Egyptian mummy, Babylonian art

The Berkshire Museum is a museum of art, natural history, and ancient civilization that is located in Pittsfield in Berkshire County, Massachusetts.


In 1903, local paper magnate Zenas Crane founded the Berkshire Museum.[1][2] Inspired by such institutions as the American Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Crane 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 over 40,000 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." The building was designed by the local architect Henry Seaver.[3][4]

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 museum's first curator was Harlan H. Ballard, who stayed in that role until early 1931. He was replaced by Laura M. Bragg who became director of the museum.[5]

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. Henson's whole-body fur suit, the sledge that made the trip, and other equipment from the trek 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, "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 museum to commission two site-specific mobiles (then a unique form of art) from Alexander Calder, who became one of the most significant artists of the 20th century. 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 purchases and gifts. 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.[6]



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.[7]

In October 2014, Berkshire Museum's "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.

Sale of art controversy[edit]

In July 2017, the Board of Directors at the Berkshire Museum announced a plan to sell the most significant 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), which were given to the museum by Norman Rockwell himself. They contracted with Sotheby's to auction a total of 40 pieces from their collection. The art was removed from the museum before the sale was announced, and museum officials initially refused to name the works that were to be sold.[8] The estimated proceeds from the sale would be $50 million. The art sale created considerable controversy not only among the residents of Berkshire County, but within the larger art world.[9][10][11][12] The Massachusetts Attorney General's brief of October 30, 2017, supported opposition to the sale and joined the plaintiffs in court.[13]

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, denying the plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction and dismissing the non-governmental plaintiffs for lack of standing.[14] Nevertheless, the Massachusetts Appeals Court granted a temporary injunction to halt the sale that expired on December 11. The sale was opposed by members of the museum as well as the descendants of Norman Rockwell, who donated work to the museum 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.[15][16][17][12] After months of negotiating at the Appellate Court level, a tentative settlement was reached on February 9, 2018, between the plaintiffs and the Attorney General's office. As of March 20, that settlement was in the hands of Justice David A. Lowy of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, following a hearing involving lawyers from the Massachusetts Attorney General's office, the museum, and two separate groups of plaintiffs opposing the settlement.[18][19]

On April 11, 2018, it was announced that the Berkshire Museum had sold Shuffleton's Barbershop by Rockwell to the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art for an undisclosed amount.[20][21] The painting was to be loaned to the Norman Rockwell Museum in nearby Stockbridge for display into 2020.[21] Other works, including Blacksmith's Boy – Heel and Toe, were scheduled for sale at a Sotheby's auction in May 2018.[21] Shortly after these initial sales, museum director Van Shields suddenly retired.[22] In late November 2018, the museum announced that it had completed its sale of artworks, having raised $53.25 million through the sale of 22 pieces.[23]


  1. ^ Lauren R. Stevens (June 5, 2006). Explorer's Guide Berkshire: A Great Destination (Eighth ed.). Countryman Press. pp. 162–. ISBN 978-1-58157-996-3.
  2. ^ A Handbook of New England. P. E. Sargent. 1921.
  3. ^ The Berkshire County Historical Society (October 9, 2001). Pittsfield. Arcadia Publishing. pp. 35–. ISBN 978-1-4396-2826-3.
  4. ^ John S. Dickson (July 3, 2017). Berkshire County's Industrial Heritage. Arcadia Publishing Incorporated. pp. 100–. ISBN 978-1-4396-6079-9.
  5. ^ "Many View Loan Exhibition At Reception Given for New Director of Berkshire Museum". The Berkshire Eagle. September 1, 1931. p. 4. Retrieved April 8, 2022.
  6. ^ "About - Berkshire Museum". Berkshire Museum. May 4, 2023. Retrieved May 4, 2023.
  7. ^ Rothstein, Edward. (April 5, 2008). "Attic-Like Museum's New Annex of Ideas". New York Times. Retrieved April 7, 2008.
  8. ^ "As Art Sale Nears, Massachusetts AG Asserts Herself in Berkshire Museum Fracas - Non Profit News | Nonprofit Quarterly". Retrieved November 6, 2017.
  9. ^ Russeth, Andrew (November 1, 2017). "In Contentious Hearing, Lawyers Battle Over Berkshire Museum Sell-Off". ARTnews. Retrieved November 4, 2017.
  10. ^ "Attorney General's Office files emergency motion in Berkshire Museum suit". The Berkshire Eagle. Retrieved November 4, 2017.
  11. ^ "The Berserk Battle Over the Berkshire Museum and Its Art Collection". Hyperallergic. November 2, 2017. Retrieved November 4, 2017.
  12. ^ a b "Museum's plan to sell off art crosses ethical boundaries". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved December 17, 2017.
  13. ^ "Home | The Berkshire Eagle". Retrieved January 5, 2018.
  14. ^ "Agostini Decision on Berkshire Museum Art Sale". Scribd. Retrieved December 20, 2017.
  15. ^ Moynihan, Colin (November 10, 2017). "Court Blocks Berkshire Museum's Sale of Rockwell Works and Other Art". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved November 12, 2017.
  16. ^ "Appeals Court justice extends injunction on Berkshire Museum art sale". The Berkshire Eagle. Retrieved December 16, 2017.
  17. ^ "Legislation next agenda item for Save the Art group". The Berkshire Eagle. Retrieved December 16, 2017.
  18. ^ Russeth, Andrew (March 20, 2018). "As Closely Watched Case Nears Possible End, Lawyers Duel Over Berkshire Museum Sales in Massachusetts Supreme Court". ARTnews. Retrieved March 27, 2018.
  19. ^ "Art expert files last-minute amicus brief in Berkshire Museum case". The Berkshire Eagle. Retrieved March 27, 2018.
  20. ^ Finkel, Jori (April 11, 2018). "Lucas Museum Comes Forward as Buyer of Rockwell Painting". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved March 31, 2020.
  21. ^ a b c "Pittsfield museum sells Rockwell masterpiece to 'Star Wars' creator's museum". AP. April 11, 2018. Retrieved April 12, 2018.
  22. ^ Parnass, Larry (June 28, 2018). "Van Shields, proponent of controversial art sales, bows out at Berkshire Museum". The Berkshire Eagle.
  23. ^ Brown, Lillian (November 27, 2018). "Berkshire Museum finishes controversial art sales, raising $53 million". The Boston Globe. Retrieved November 27, 2018.

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