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Museum Mecca

     Now's the best time to visit our excellent museums (without summer crowds)!
     The Berkshires has a long history of cultural sophistication. Artists began flocking here in the early 19th century, and by mid-century, the tradition of a Berkshire cultural bounty had taken hold. Notable artistic Berkshire natives and summer residents include: William Cullen Bryant, Catherine Sedgwick, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Edith Wharton, Norman Rockwell, Daniel Chester French and Sir Henry Hudson Kitson.
     Winter and spring are lovely times to experience the Berkshires -- without the summer and fall crowds. Listed below are several distinctive museums to enjoy.

The Berkshire Museum:
39 South Street, Pittsfield, 443-7171. Open year-round: Tuesday - Saturday 10-5, Sunday 1-5. Fee: Adults $6, Seniors and Students $5, Children $4, Members and children under 2 free.
     Dedicated to interpreting art, science and natural history through exhibitions and educational programs. The far-ranging collections include 19th-century glass made locally; pre-Christian glass bottles from Egypt; exhibits of shells and aquatic life; and even a dinosaur model. The museum boasts strong collections of art, science, regional and natural history, as well as offering an exciting calendar of lectures, films, concerts, classes, and field trips.

Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute:
225 South Street, Williamstown, 458-2303. Open year-round: Tuesday - Sunday 10-5, including Presidents' Day, Memorial Day, Labor Day & Columbus Day. Closed all other Mondays, New Year's Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Admission: November 1 - June 30: free, July - October: Adults $5
     Sterling Clark acquired his first Renoir in 1916; by the time he was finished, he owned 36. He and his French wife, Francine, bought what they liked, and the basis of this fine collection reflects their personal taste. Included with Impressionists are galleries filled with 19th-century American classics-by Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, and Frederick Remington-and a small but impressive collection of Old Masters. Besides its extensive art lecture series, the Clark presents chamber music and film programs.

Norman Rockwell Museum:
Route 183, Stockbridge, 298-4100. Open year-round, Nov.-April: Monday-Friday 11-4, Saturday-Sunday 10-5; May-October 10-5 daily. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day. Admission: Adult $9, Children 6-18 $2, Children under 6 free, family (2 adults, children under 18) $20.
     Whether we regard Norman Rockwell as illustrator or artist, the display of his life's work at the Norman Rockwell Museum resonates. The 4.4 million-dollar museum was designed by Robert A. M. Stern, and the grounds include Rockwell's studio and a bucolic view of the Housatonic River. Spacious, well-lit galleries show permanent exhibits of Rockwell's paintings and changing exhibitions interpreting Rockwell and other illustrators. Rockwell's Four Freedoms hang on permanent display. Many of his originals for his Saturday Evening Post covers are on view. The museum offers a variety of educational programs beyond its public exhibitions, including lectures, performances, special events, and art classes.

Hancock Shaker Village:
Junction of Routes 20 & 41, 5 miles West of Pittsfield, 443-0188. Season: Main Season: late May-late October 9:30-5:00 daily; Guided Tour Season: April 1-late May and late October-November tours begin at 9:30, tours daily on the hour. Closed Thanksgiving. Close December 1 - April 1. Fees: Main season, Adult $13.50(10-day admission pass), Ages 6-17 $5.50, 5 and under free; Family (2 adults and all children in immediate family under 18) $30. Tour season: Adult $10, Ages 6-17 $5, 5 and under free; Family $25.
     Established at Hancock in 1790, the City of Peace was one of 18 Shaker communities from Maine to Kentucky. Visitors can tour 20 original Shaker buildings, to see Shaker furniture and tools, some of them attended by craftspeople working in the Shaker way: the chair maker, blacksmith, basketmakers, and spinners and weavers. Hancock's workshops teach how to create Shaker chair seats, oval boxes, natural herb wreaths, and a variety of other crafts. Visitors absorb the power of Shaker simplicity.

Williams College Museum of Art:
Main Street (Route 2), Williamstown, 597-2429. Open year-round: Tuesday-Saturday 10-5, Sunday 1-5, Open Memorial Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's Day. Free admission.
     One of the finest college art museums in the country, the Williams College Museum of Art's permanent collection contains some 11,000 objects. Complementing the Clark Art Museum's collection of 19th-century European art, WCMA emphasizes early art, 20th-century art, and the art of Asia and other non-Western civilizations. Thanks to a recent $32 million gift by the widow of American Impressionist Charles Prendergast, what was once a small, regional museum now houses the finest collection by both Charles and his talented brother, Maurice, and is now the leading center in the world for the study of Prendergasts' work. Frequent, engaging loan exhibitions focus on a wide range of provocative subjects. A lively education program includes school programs and children's story/art hours.

This article was excerpted from The Berkshire Book: A Complete Guide (Fifth Edition) by Jonathan Sternfield and Lauren Stevens, a comprehensive guide to lodging, dining, culture, recreation, shopping, and more, in Berkshire County published by Berkshire House Publishers.

Photo courtesy of the Norman Rockwell Museum.