EDITOR’S NOTE: This post as it originally appeared on March 10 was a draft version, posted in error. The correct version appears below. We apologize to the authors and to our readers for the confusion.
Picture, for a moment, children of all ages loose in your museum; free to grab, change, move, and build with whatever their hands happen to come across. Does the image worry or excite you?
Our instincts as parents and educators, as curators and interpreters, and even just as adults, would be to take some control, to guide the children. But what if we resist that impulse? Is there anything to be gained by allowing our very youngest visitors to take total control of their own experience?
And what could be more radical for a 110 year-old museum than to completely set aside its air of erudition and cede all control of the interpretive narrative, the artistic expression, and the direction of the interactive activities to giggling toddlers and energy-filled elementary school students?
The Berkshire Museum building was built in 1903 with an architectural look that reflects the seriousness of the collection and the authority of the voice with which it was meant to educate. Photo credit: The Berkshire Museum
For two years now the Berkshire Museum has done just that with “10 Days of Play,” a February break festival of unstructured exploration, invention, creation and even destruction. First, some background: the Berkshire Museum was built in 1903 when its hometown of Pittsfield was on the rise. Founded by Zenas Crane, the museum was intended to be a serious institution of learning inspired by the Smithsonian and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was outfitted with an impressive and varied collection of cultural artifacts, art, and natural history specimens. Over a century later, the Berkshire Museum has been going through a process of reinventing itself in a landscape now full of cultural institutions and in a city that has seen stronger economic times. A gallery devoted to interactive exploration of innovation, an aquarium, and a theater and movie screening area are now mixed in amongst more traditional galleries filled with changing exhibits of fine arts and ancient artifacts, offering a wide range of experiences for people of all ages. The goal is now as much about adding value to the local community as it is about being a cultural destination for tourists.