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Grand reopening: The Berkshire Museum opens it’s new doors.

What’s the Big Idea?

The Feigenbaum Hall of Innovation enriches the Berkshire Museum’s mission to draw interactive connections between art, history and the natural world

By Kathryn Lange

Photos by Shannon DeCelle

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines innovation as “the introduction of something new” or, “a new idea, method or device.” But how are new ideas born? Apple Computer executive Ron Johnson describes innovation, more poetically, as the intersection between imagination and reality. It is this intersection—the dynamic crossroads of actuality and dreams, what is and what could be—that the Berkshire Museum celebrates with its new permanent exhibit in the Feigenbaum Hall of Innovation, part of an extensive multiphase renovation of the 105-year-old institution in downtown Pittsfield, Mass.

The new gallery is named for its major underwriters, brothers Armand and Donald Feigenbaum. Innovators in their own right, today the Pittsfield natives are globally recognized as the fathers of Total Quality Management, a system that has revolutionized quality control in business and industry for more than 50 years. According to the Feigenbaum brothers, “innovation occurs when we break free from and old way of thinking and embrace a new, more effective way of solving a problem or meeting a need.” Their namesake exhibit explores not only the remarkable products of innovation, but, more important, the innovative process, from spark to solution—and all the stumbling blocks in between.

“We didn’t just want it to be a hall of fame,” says Sherrill Ingalls, the museum’s bright-eyed director of marketing, at the start of a comprehensive guided tour. “We really wanted it to be an experience, about the process and the ideas.” The 3,000-square-foot exhibit space, reclaimed from old offices, storage and coat rooms, is divided into six interactive sections that draw visitors through the course of innovation, from motivation to success. All the innovators and innovations included in the exhibit have close links to the Berkshire region.

Culling through the myriad concepts of innovation in fields spanning from technology and business to history and art, the exhibit’s designers define innovation as “the unprecedented use or application of an idea, material or technology, the result of which influences or enhances people’s lives.” Inventions, the exhibit explains, are new gadgets and gizmos. Innovation is the creative process of making new connections. It’s what makes inventions valuable.

The exhibit’s concept is reinforced throughout. “We tried to incorporate innovative building materials into the gallery space,” says Ingalls, indicating a desk made from bamboo flooring. Relevant in-depth reading material is attached to a matching desk at each of the six exhibit stops; the bright pages are printed on sturdy Tyvek. Wooden dividers, supported by industrial cardboard pipe, segment the stations into intimate, manageable spaces. The panels are made from a new type of environmentally sound plywood. A recently developed printing process enabled the huge panels to be run through the press; the exhibit’s interpretive photos and text are printed directly onto the wood.

Hidden history: Sherrill Ingalls in one of the Berkshire Museum’s storage spaces.

The first stop illustrates “moti vation.” A steel sign asks, “What motivates you to think creatively and solve problems?” The plywood panels tell the varied stories of Clare Bousquet, a Pittsfield entrepreneur who collaborated with engineers at General Electric to create the outdoor lighting that made night skiing possible for the first time; Tom Patti, a Berkshire-born glass artist who fused art, architecture and science by using aerospace materials in his creations; and W.E.B. Du Bois, Great Barrington native, author, scholar and one of the founders of the NAACP, who challenged America to make good on its promise of justice and equality.

An interactive station at the center of the stop suggests some irritating chores and encourages young (or young at heart) visitors to explore creative solutions to these everyday problems, and to build prototypes of their innovations using straws, pipe cleaners, construction paper and crayons. Long shelves are full of innovations left behind, incorporating such creations as the “bracelet holder with propeller” and the “automatic item sorter” into this hall of genius. Perhaps they are the work of brilliant innovators-to-be.

Along the path to innovation, visitors encounter examples that illustrate five more steps toward innovation: inspiration, the innovative process, unexpected outcomes, overcoming obstacles, and, finally, success. Interactive stations at each stop—from tavern puzzles and mazes that encourage working through obstacles, to a drawing station that uses artifacts from the museum collection to spark inspiration—help to personalize each visitor’s understanding. A body-driven installation, created by Flavia Sparacino of Sensing Places in Santa Monica, Calif., invites visitors, young and old alike, to explore the innovative process in a dance room that visually interprets movement using cameras and computer projections. Even on a quiet Monday afternoon, the room was abuzz with little ones, giggling, jumping, spinning, running and swaying to influence the swirling projections.

The six stops each hold treasures from the 18 innovators depicted in the initial installation. An AC converter, built in 1803 by William Stanley, revolutionized the distribution of electricity. Sculptures by Nancy Graves, a frequent childhood visitor of the museum, fuse natural science and art in remarkable abstractions. A section of the first transatlantic telegraph cable, created by Cyrus Field, rests modestly in a glass case beside Herman Melville’s quill pen and Elizabeth Freeman’s bracelet. A copper mesh watermark from Crane and Co. Paper connects to the museum’s own history. In 1801, Zenas Marshall Crane founded the first paper mill in the Berkshires. In 1879, Crane and Co. began producing all of the paper used to print U.S. currency; their innovations in “safe paper” continue to this day. It was Zenas Crane’s grandson and namesake who founded the Berkshire Museum.

Amid these treasures of attained inspiration, Ingalls recalls the inspiration for the exhibit itself. “We had a lot of these artifacts in our collection. And, you know, artifacts by themselves, in a case, are not particularly interesting. But they do demonstrate all these great things that have come out of the Berkshires. A lot of people know the Berkshires for arts and culture, which, of course, is very important, but they may not know about the certain scientific, technology and business innovations. So we thought a way to do that would be to use these people to tell the stories, to communicate the idea of innovation.”

The exhibit celebrates the innovations, but also emphasizes the effort involved. “It doesn’t just come out of the box as an idea and you’re done and you make a million dollars,” says Ingalls. “There are struggles, and there are inspirations, and sometimes, it’s even just luck.” Local connections infuse the innovations with a kind of hometown pride and, sometimes, surprising tidbits: Did you know Great Barrington was the first electrified town in the world? Most important, the regional ties are a reminder that brilliance can happen anywhere. That the next great innovator could be right next door, or—just maybe—it could be you.

Pint-sized museum visitors explore the Feigenbaum Hall of Innovation.

The addition of the Hall of In novations is only one of the projects the newly-reopened Berkshire Museum has undertaken in its, to date, $10 million renovation, funded almost entirely by private donations to the institution’s capital campaign. The 260-seat theater has been refurbished, and wheelchair seating has been added. The expansive upstairs art galleries, which house the museum’s collections of American and European Art, toys and mobiles by Alexander Calder, global antiquities—including ancient Roman glass, Chinese grave goods, towering plaster casts made in the early 1900s of iconic statuary from the Louvre, and the Museum’s mummy, Pahat—have been given a facelift. The original hardwood floors are refinished and gleaming. A new climate-control system will preserve the art, and finally allow delicate artifacts from the collection to be displayed. “The Native American Collection is something that has not been seen in decades,” says Ingalls of the upcoming exhibit Native Peoples: Northeast-Northwest. “The climate control will allow us to share it. Those things are particularly fragile, feathers and leather.” The museum’s ethnographic collection includes more than 2,600 objects drawn from 50 Native American nations, as well as Oceanic and African clutures.

A new acquisitions gallery highlights art and artifacts the museum has acquired over the past year. “One of the things that people have thought about the museum is that things never change,” says Ingalls. “We’ve been trying, over the last several years, to refresh things regularly. What better way to show that off than to have an exhibition of things people have never seen before?”

The museum’s lower floors focus on natural sciences, from mineral collections and walls of taxidermy birds and mineral collections to water testing stations and a dinosaur dig. A basement aquarium and reptile room features animals from the Berkshires and around the world. Crane founded the museum, Ingalls explains, as a “mini-Smithsonian for the Berkshires. And we’ve been building the collection for 100 years.”

“We talk about collision here, because we have art, science, and history,” she adds. “We don’t consider this to be the art wing and this to be the science wing; we try to bring these things together.” Those collisions and connections enrich the museum experience throughout. In the American Art Gallery a massive pastel-on-paper dominates an entire wall, still draped in plastic, awaiting the art galleries’ reopening on April 12. Peeking through the sheeting is an epic scene from Moby Dick, the book that Melville wrote, perhaps with the quill downstairs, while living on his small farm in Pittsfield. In the mineral room, a chunk of raw marble rests in a glass case with a collection of other minerals. Beside it, a dynamic bust of Brian Boru, a 10th-century Irish king who escalated the tensions between the Irish and the Vikings, shows how sculptor Henry Hudson Kitson carved new life from a hunk of rock. Science becomes art, becomes history.

As a gateway to the museum, the Feigenbaum Hall of Innovation inspires visitors to make connections, to look at things in new and creative ways, to open their minds to innovative thinking, and to endure life’s roadblocks and wrong turns. In the short film at the entrance to the Hall, Douglass Trumball, Berkshire-based special effects guru behind such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, offers his imperfect view of innovation: “You start with and outrageous idea, how to do something that’s completely wrong. . . . You learn to free yourself, to withstand your failures.”

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