Community input drives 'reinvention plan' for The Berkshire Museum

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PITTSFIELD — A $60 million "reinvention plan" for the Berkshire Museum called on input from more than 400 community members. They answered questions and gave input on a number of topics including ways the city's first cultural institution can better serve visitors in the 21st century.

Redefining the museum — founded in 1903 with inspiration from the American Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museum of Art — is the result of a two-year planning process.

"We have suffered from an identity crisis," Berkshire Museum Executive Director Van Shields said. "What we are trying to do now is to create a comprehensive vision [that is] community-centric."

The input they received helped museum leaders decide to place a heightened emphasis on science and history moving forward. The museum will also take an interdisciplinary approach, which Shields said is meant to bring contemporary relevance to the more than 40,000 historical artifacts in its collection.

Those plans will be supported by a $40 million endowment — funded in large part from the upcoming sale of 40 works of art — and a planned $20 million museum renovation.

"The board entered into an open-ended master plan process," to get there Shields said. "Hearing voices instead of making choices."

The museum's master plan outlined six goals: identifying a new vision, establishing a sustainable business model, offering relevance to a changing community, continuing to provide a high-quality product, building on core strengths in educational programs and receiving broad community support.

"Now it is time to live it, and breathe it, and own it," Shields said.

One way it will do that is to address several, often discussed, community challenges raised by those who took part in the planning including under-resourced schools, declining population, and that many residents can't afford to attend the cultural institutions here.

He singled out one idea to address financial barriers to visiting the museum.

While the museum has free and reduced-price ticket options available to some, Shields said it intends to do more to increase low-income visitorship. For instance, the museum will offer a variety of free programming in its lobby.

Doug Crane, whose great-great-uncle Zenas founded the museum, joined the museum's board at the outset of its planning process about two years ago. Members of his family have had a consistent connection with the museum, but he said now is a special time be involved.

"I hope it opens up a lot of collaboration with other cultural institutions," he said. "And I hope that the community really gets behind it because I think it is a very exciting time."

Jennifer Glockner, the city's director of cultural development, took part in the museum's Program Working Group — one of four distinct groups that assisted with the museum's planning process.

Glockner's group brainstormed ways the museum can partner with community organizations on educational and interdisciplinary experiences for visitors.

She said she was delighted to assist the museum with its brainstorming and planning process and believes its plans will be a "game changer."

"The changes are going to make it even more of a destination," she said. "People are going to want to come here to see this cool new museum concept."

More than 400 local people in addition to the museum's trustees and staff, participated in identifying regional needs that could be met by the museum and also acted as a sounding board for the ideas being developed, according to Shields.

That planning process, led by Boston-based consulting firm TDC and launched in December 2015, included meetings with a number of community leaders from the business, nonprofit and philanthropic sectors, as well as focus groups with about 235 residents, from the age of 8 to senior citizens.

In the interest of collaboration, the data gathered has been shared with Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation and others, Shields said.

"We have worked very hard and thought very hard," he said.

Reach staff writer Carrie Saldo at 413-496-6221 or @carriesaldo


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