Real Life, On Display

Posted on June 17, 2016 by

We were looking at a big wooden cabinet, partially shrouded by a thin sheet of protective foam. Even covered up, it was clearly an object of wonder: towering, but intricate; intricate, but functional. Not just a cabinet, it is also a replica of the Hutzler brother’s so-called Palace, formerly located at Lexington and Howard. The Hutzler Palace opened in 1888 as the first department store in Baltimore. A year later, David Hutzler commissioned C.F. Meislahn for the cabinet, which he gave to his wife Ella in honor of their 15th anniversary.

The cabinet, revealed! (JMM 1989.204.001)

The cabinet, revealed! (JMM 1989.204.001)

Karen, the JMM’s curator, explained how Joanna, the collections manager, thought the cabinet was too overused to be considered for exhibition in the new core exhibit, which will replace Voices of Lombard Street in 2019. But looking back at previous exhibit catalogs, the cabinet hasn’t been used since the Enterprising Emporiums: The Jewish Department Stores of Downtown Baltimore of 2001. With the cabinet back on the table, Karen talked display.

“I really hate display cases,” she said, explaining the impracticality of building a case built specifically to hold one item: “You can never use them again.” But Karen took deeper issue with glass cases than just their too-specific dimensions. “As soon as you put an object in a case, or on a pedestal, there’s a disconnect.” Somehow, when even the most mundane objects are put into glass cases, they suddenly become “too good” for the visitor. If museums offer a chance to become intimate with history and its artifacts, glass cases tell the visitor, “You can look, but you can’t touch!” The intimacy is lost.

This is particularly relevant at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. Having spent years with the museum’s collections and discussing them, Karen describes them as collections where the everyday is privileged. When she tours me and Alice, the other exhibitions intern, around the storage rooms, she pulls out a box of beautiful lacy parasols, owned by elite Jewish women; she points out tea boxes and a porcelain salt box, unboxes an embroidered matzah  cover, and opens a dress bag to show us a glamorous white fur coat. We pass by golf trophies and a shelf devoted to charity boxes. Less than an arm length’s away, no glass between us, it’s easy for me to imagine tea boxes sitting on kitchen counters or organized neatly in a cupboard, or one of the golf trophies sitting on a fireplace mantle. Even the Hutzler cabinet becomes familiar when I see it in the background of a picture of the Hutzler’s dining room. The everyday-ness of the items makes imagining them as props in the story of someone’s life all the more simple. Connect them with a good story, and these items can really resonate with a person.

The cabinet (pictured far left) in use in the dining room of the Hutzler home on Eutaw Place. (JMM 1991.024.001a)

The cabinet (pictured far left) in use in the dining room of the Hutzler home on Eutaw Place. (JMM 1991.024.001a)

Towards the end of our mini-tour, Karen stopped us in front of a shelf where two elaborate silver torah crowns sat side by side. Each was multi-tiered like a wedding cake and decorated with silver flowers and bells, so I was a little surprised when Karen admitted, “I find them a little underwhelming.” But she used them to discuss the ongoing debates among Jewish museums across the country about what the role of the Jewish museum is, and what it is supposed to represent of the broadly defined Jewish experience (further spurred on by an article by Eric Rothstein earlier this year).

“These [religious items] used to be what people came to see,” Karen shared, speaking of Jewish museums of old. But Karen, having tried to do so at various points in her career, does not believe in defining who is a Jew and even what Judaism is, deeming the task impossible. Understanding what it means to be Jewish can’t come from a black and white definition, because it is such a contextual, nuanced position. This is why I think a collection that champions the everyday is the right place for the Jewish museum to be. It reminds me of when a difficult conversation would come up in school, and we would be encouraged to only use “I” statements, so as not to generalize other people’s experiences based on our own. We can’t make blanket statements about who is who and what is what. All we can do is point to specific stories, listen to lived experiences, and try to understand the decisions others have made. I am excited to see how the “everyday” will take the forefront as we continue to develop the new core exhibit.

06.06.2016 Interns (19)Blog post by Exhibitions Intern Emilia Halvorsen. To read  more posts by and about interns click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

Tagged: , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *