When museums sell off their treasures, one jargon word is unavoidable: “deaccession”. The thing to look out for is how many other jargon words there are. As ever, more = worse.
Enter the Berkshire Museum, explaining why it’s selling off the single most valuable piece in its collection, Norman Rockwell’s Shuffleton’s Barbershop. The piece has no place in the new vision for the museum, we are told, in words of many syllables: the exact phrasing is that it does “not directly contribute to its new interdisciplinary interpretive plan”.
There’s a lot more where that comes from. After learning about “bold steps” and “moving forward” and the need to “greatly accelerate Pittsfield’s ongoing transformation,” for instance, we are told that “the new model will provide visitors with technology that allows them to interact in a variety of modalities”. And, yes, Virginia, there are renderings. Oh boy are there renderings.
This certainly looks like the wholesale destruction of everything the Berkshire Museum was, and its replacement with trendy cyber-bollocks inevitably adorned with “out of order” signs.
Back in 2008, the NYT’s Edward Rothstein wrote about how even when the museum was undergoing revamps, its director always found that “the curiosity cabinet tradition is too strong to be discarded,” and explained just what kind of museum Pittsfield had been gifted:
It recognized no distinctions between the arts and sciences nor, for that matter, between the artistic heritage of Europe and nascent American art forms; it would combine world-class objects with local discoveries.
Over the years the institution’s eccentric lineaments were deepened by donations. The museum was given Nathaniel Hawthorne’s desk and a stuffed albino pheasant, a piece of the first trans-Atlantic cable and collections of local minerals. More recently, aquariums and terrariums joined the mix. When I began to visit the museum more than 25 years ago, I felt as if I were venturing into an enormous attic in which a wealthy collector was showing off his treasures...
On the second floor one of Bierstadt’s Yosemite paintings might be hanging a room away from an Egyptian mummy; a fifth-century Chinese vase might be found not far from a 19th-century plaster cast of the Venus de Milo; prime examples of the Hudson River School could be seen not far from regrettable recent acquisitions. The museum was an extraordinary “curiosity cabinet” — what the collectors of several centuries ago used to call their assembled objects — and it offered a kind of thrill that is difficult to find in larger museums.
Such venues are rare and special things – pay a visit to the John Soane Museum in London, if you don’t believe me. What’s not rare and special, on the other hand, is the kind of digital edutainment which seems to be where the Berkshire Museum is headed.
The local newspaper has certainly been convinced, running an editorial which talks in glowing terms about how “the museum’s board of trustees sought input from focus groups, consultants and various stakeholders to inform a decision to radically redesign the way the institution presents itself, its collection, and to overhaul the character of its outreach.”
The paper’s helpful conclusion? It’s all for the best if the museum’s Rockwells are “exploited as a revenue source”. Ugh.
A bit more context, this time from Charles Giuliano:
Consider the several museums in the Berkshires. The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge concentrates on aspects of illustration. Mass MoCA in North Adams presents world class contemporary art. Reflecting the collection of its founders Sterling and Francine Clark, the Institute in Williamstown primarily focuses on 19th century French painting, American art, and Old Masters. It is regarded as one of the finest small museums in America. The Williams College Museum of Art has a diverse and intense collection, a hands on resource, for a great range of academic studies. Added to the mix is the Hancock Shaker Village.
It is significant that these museums serve different mandates. They complement rather than compete with each other. All of the Berkshire arts organizations, some of the most renowned and unique in the world, meet on a regular basis. They explore means of working together and creating synergy.
In other words, don’t look at the Berkshire Museum on its own; instead, look at it as part of a group of museums which together form more than the sum of their parts. Specifically, look at the grouping as the premier place to learn from and study the work of Norman Rockwell. And, now, consider the fact that these museums are losing one of their very finest Rockwells.
The museum’s stance can be inferred from the newspaper editorial. “Realistically, with the Norman Rockwell Museum mere miles away,” we’re told, “Rockwells at a Pittsfield museum are redundant anyway.” That is untrue on its face, and I’m sure no one at the Rockwell Museum would agree with it. But even if it were true, that would only be an argument for coming to some kind of mutually-beneficial arrangement with the Rockwell Museum. It’s certainly not an argument for shipping these masterpieces off to Sotheby’s so that they can be sold to the highest bidder.
It’s almost impossible to overstate how important Shuffleton’s Barbershop is in Rockwell art history: any museum would be proud to own it, especially the Rockwell Museum. Whole articles have been written about its representation of African-American men; it was even turned into a movie, starring Danny Glover. Rockwell himself was entirely cognizant of the painting’s importance, which is why it’s so important to know what his wishes were.
Which brings me to a fact you’ll find nowhere in the Berkshire Museum’s press release: Shuffleton’s Barbershop was donated to the museum by the artist himself.
This is crucial, because Rockwell clearly believed that the painting belonged in a museum. Having decided that, he chose the Berkshire Museum. If the Berkshire Museum has now decided that it no longer wants to be in the business of owning Shuffleton’s Barbershop, then fine – it can move the painting down the street to the Rockwell Museum. What’s far less acceptable is the idea that it’s totally cool for the Berkshire Museum to remove the painting from museum ownership entirely.
Should the painting leave the Berkshires, where Rockwell wanted it to remain in perpetuity? No, it should not. But even if it does, it should be sold to somewhere like Crystal Bridges, and remain on public view.
But even that is not on offer. Instead, the painting will now leave the world of museums, re-enter private hands, and be replaced with an “interpretive plan” of “thematic zones”. It’s not a good trade.