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Ten Minutes With Berkshire Museum’s new Executive Director

Jeff Rodgers stands within “She Shapes History.” In celebration of the 100th year since women won the right to vote, the exhibit has gathered local voices who helped to make it happen, from Elizabeth Freeman to Susan B. Anthony. He imagines conversations in the galleries on winter nights over a glass of wine and guides welcoming visitors in museum-hack style. He came to the Berkshire Museum as executive director last spring, after serving as chief operating officer for the South Florida Museum in Bradenton, Florida. He has more than 20 years’ experience in museums, including the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

How are you liking it here? As a kid, I came to the Berkshires to hike and ski, and I’ve missed the autumn. As an adult, I get excited about the culture and the food. I have 70 restaurants on my “must try” list, and I’ve had a great time eating my way around the county. I’m jazzed about Pittsfield’s future. I’ve been talking with people who are working to make downtown a place to live and work and play, and I’ve sat with people who grew up here. The spaces have changed so much. I’m excited about the downtown, and I want the museum to be a part of it.

How do you see the Berkshire Museum’s role? This is a tumultuous time in the museum world. People are asking what a museum is—is it a place that brings people together to share ideas and experiences, or is it a place that cares for objects? The Berkshire Museum comes down on the side of community.

You came to the museum after a controversial time in its relationship with some in the community. How is the museum navigating that relationship now?
Museums are among the most trusted kind of institutions in America. They are seen as truthful, as having good information and honest dialogue. Interestingly, there is no legal definition of what a museum has to be. But in the art museum world, there’s a sense of ethics, and it has held for generations that if you deaccession work, what you bring in should be used for other works or to care for the collection. We had works like Norman Rockwell’s painting, Shuffleton’s Barbershop, that we could not show because we could not afford to insure them for an exhibit, and we were paying substantial insurance just to keep them in the basement. I understand the ethical argument. When museums are entrusted with objects, expectations come with them. But the loss of the museum also has ethical implications. Generations have grown up here and found ideas here about how they fit into the world. They have gone on to become climate scientists and astronauts. I came here thinking that this place needs and deserves a future.

With the museum’s new resources, what are its plans?
The deaccessioning raised $53.25 million. The museum has put $45 million, 85 percent, into a fund in perpetuity that will cover a third of the museum’s operating expenses each year. In the next year, eight percent, about $4.25 million, is going toward immediate infrastructure improvements—waterproofing the basement, work on the roof. We are also setting up a building reserve fund that will grow for the future. Now we have seven percent, about $3.75 million, to pour into our mission.

What changes will we see in the museum’s near future?
In the short term, we want to make the Crane Room more useable as a programming space. The acoustics are hard, and we are studying how to maintain its character and original beauty and improve the sound. We are also planning to expand classroom and lab space and restrooms on the second floor in place of a catering kitchen we no longer use. Our rotating exhibit space is limited in the kinds of exhibits we can bring here, because we have never had a lift that can bring large-scale objects upstairs. We have a loading dock and and old lift into the basement on the south side, and we are planning extend it, to put in a new lift to the second floor. We will turn the galleries here into rotating space, and flip the north side into permanent galleries. And that will broadly expand the kinds of exhibits we can bring.

How will you envision exhibits?
We are looking at a set of modular frameworks. We call them “experience pods,” and you should see them in the galleries by January. Some key objects will always be here, but we will bring out groups of objects and put them in new contexts. It’s much like the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The pods can give us flexibility, if we challenge ourselves to be creative. And we will have guides in the galleries to lead hands-on activities.

How will the museum’s programming evolve?
We want to expand what we offer for teens and adults. We want to give people a place to come on a winter night. In Florida, we had a Think + Drink program for adults who would come out for a cup of coffee or a glass of wine. There is a community here—people want to be coming together. We are looking toward more conversations like the Voices + Visionaries we hosted this fall, on social and cultural issues, climate and environment. There’s no shortage of challenges, and the community needs places to get together and talk.

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