Berkshire Museum Launches $60M Reinvention Plan

Jul 13, 2017

The Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield has unveiled a $60 million plan to reinvent itself as Western Massachusetts’ premier science and history museum. 

Board of Trustees President Elizabeth “Buzz” McGraw says the Berkshire Museum has been researching and planning for two years how to reinvent the more than century-old museum.

“What makes the Berkshire Museum unique in our diversely rich cultural community? How do we stay relevant as an organization when changes are occurring to our demographics and our local economies? How can we overcome a structural deficit in our operating budget that has persisted for decades and finally create a more financially stable and sustainable organization?” McGraw says.

Museum Executive Director Van Shields announced Wednesday the museum will step into a new direction, focusing on science, history and the arts.

“We are, in an effect, the Smithsonian of the Berkshires,” Shields says.

The $60 million master plan is comprised of two parts: a $20 million architectural overhaul of the museum, and a new $40 million endowment to provide the museum with financial security, Shields said – so that it can be around for another 100 years.

“That’s change, move or die,” Shields says. “We aren’t moving, we can’t serve if we die, therefore we must change, and nothing short of a dramatic comprehensive solution is necessary. Act now and act boldly to avoid a crisis down the road that threatens our very existence.”

The majority of the plan will be funded by the sale of 40 objects from the museum’s collection of 40,000 items – including two Norman Rockwell paintings – that have been deemed no longer essential to the museum’s programming.

“Anticipated to generate – probably right ahead of me, wait for it – at least $50 million in proceeds,” Shields says.

The Berkshire Museum partnered with the Smithsonian in 2013. Since then, museum leaders have sought to make programming interdisciplinary – mixing science and history with art, unique to Berkshire County where possible.

In recent months, the cultural center has launched two well-received exhibits: the “Curiosity Incubator,” featuring virtual reality learning, and “GUITAR: The Instrument That Rocked The World,” which claims to have the longest guitar.  

The museum’s five zones will have different themes, representing many of the familiar iconic objects in new ways. One, Our Living World, will include an expanded and improved aquarium.

“Before you get worried, we will still have a Crane room in another part of the building. We will actually have three theatres which are state of the art and digitally based and very intimate and wonderful,” Shields said. “But this space, this space will become the new heart of the museum because it is going to be a three-story atrium, as depicted here, and it’s going to be completely wrapped with hundreds of items from our collection.”

By creating an endowment fund, Shields said, the museum can pay down existing debt, reduce financial risk and establish a long-term reserve for future collections and expansions.

“From natural history specimens to historical objects to art and artifacts:  the full scope of our collections will be on view in a spectacular new way and grab everyone's attention and that is very intentional as well, because we are an object-based institution and what we are really going to take you down the road to is to understand that we are going to be the interdisciplinary museum, certainly in our region maybe the first one anywhere,” Shields says.

The museum received $2.5 million from the Feigenbaum Foundation to help further the transition. The Berkshire Museum has launched a $10 million strategic plan campaign to fund the rest.