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The truth is out there — but not necessarily in museums

A drawing of UFOs made by then 6-year-old Thomas Reed at the Great Barrington Historical Society’s museum.Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

To merit commemoration in local museums in New England, it’s often sufficient for an event, or even an alleged event, to be accepted as part of local lore. And in the Berkshires, there are a lot of people, or at least enough people, who believe that, beginning in 1966, Sheffield resident Thomas Reed and his family had a series of close encounters with UFOs. In a controversial move, the Great Barrington Historical Society and Museum recently voted to accept Reed’s account as what the society’s director described as “significant and true.”

The UFO story more than satisfies the rather flexible standards of historical markers in the region, but that says more about the reliability of those markers than about the veracity of Thomas Reed.

As the Globe’s Billy Baker recently reported, Reed, now 55, recalls three incidents involving strange lights in the hallway or in the sky. In two cases, he remembers being transported with his brother to the inside of some kind of spacecraft. In the third case, his mother, brother, and grandmother were transported as well. The Great Barrington museum took particular notice of the third encounter, because of contemporaneous accounts from other people in the area who also reported a UFO. Indeed, in examining results of Reed’s polygraph exam and documentation from a local radio station that covered the sightings, the society went farther than some peer organizations might.


While the Great Barrington museum may be the first local historical group to accept a UFO story as fact, New Hampshire has already taken a similar step. In 2011, that state put up a marker commemorating the “Betty and Barney Hill incident” of 50 years earlier, in which a couple from Portsmouth spotted an odd object in the sky and then experienced two hours of “lost” time. If that too sounds fanciful, like yet another odd product of Cold War-era paranoia, remember that other ostensibly historical markers are based on still flimsier evidence. Viking explorer Leif Erikson probably never built a home in Cambridge, but there’s still a granite plaque commemorating it.

In one way or another, most museum displays and historical markers tell present-day residents something about the past. But a word to the wise: Some of these efforts keep history alive, and others are an attempt to create it.