Like Persimmon Sauce, But Better

Posted on October 11, 2017 by

A blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. You can read more posts by Marvin here.

It was 1979 and we were getting ready to leave Korea. I had spent eighteen months as a foreign service officer working for the United States Information Agency. My boss was an affable fellow who had a passion for Korean culture and an eye for a bargain.

Left: Japanese persimmon (variety Hachiya) - watercolor 1887 drawn by Amanda A. Newton. Right: Fuyu persimmon by artist R.G. Steadman

Left: Japanese persimmon (variety Hachiya) – watercolor 1887 drawn by Amanda A. Newton.         Right: Fuyu persimmon by artist R.G. Steadman

So neither my wife nor I were very surprised when my boss called to tell us that he had found a great deal on a case of ripe persimmons – but neither he or his housekeeper (his wife was away on travel) could figure out what to do with this massive quantity of delicious fruit. My wife jumped into action. She worked with the housekeeper to peel the fruit and improvised a puree that she put into the freezer. Unfortunately, I never got to taste it.

Fast forward to 1990. I am in my first museum job at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry working on that museum’s strategic plan. Due to the untimely death of the Museum’s business manager, I find myself temporarily in charge of the museum store. This new assignment puts me in contact with all the product vendors who supply the store. I struck up a friendship with one t-shirt designer from the West Coast who did fantastic custom shirts to match our exhibits.  The artist, Doug Kim, had been raised as an adopted child and devoted much of his free time to helping Korean adoptees rediscover their heritage.

One of the excellent shirts designed by Doug Kim.

One of the excellent shirts designed by Doug Kim.

When Doug visited Chicago on a sales trip we invited him to our house for dinner. Quite naturally, the conversation drifted to our Korean experience. It turned out that he knew my old boss.  Without being prompted he said, “You know one of my favorite memories was going to dinner at Jim’s house and getting this fantastic dessert of ice cream covered with persimmon sauce.” My wife and I were flabbergasted.

So what does this story have to do with the Jewish Museum of Maryland?

Well, as most of you know, next week we will host the exhibit Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage. We will be the sixth venue in a national tour undertaken by the National Archives and Records Administration, with generous support from the U.S. Department of State. And I have to confess that I am more than a little familiar with the exhibit.

About eight years ago, when I was still director of the National Archives Experience, my colleague Doris Hamburg (at that time Director of Preservation Programs) called me up to tell me that we needed to plan an exhibit based on the artifacts that had been recovered from the basement of Saddam Hussein’s secret police headquarters, the Mukhabarat.  She told me the whole amazing story about how the Mukhabarat had been divided into rooms based on the “nationality” of the subject of intelligence, how the material on Jewish life and Israel was located at the lowest level, how it had been flooded when bombs burst the pipes, and how it had been rescued by the American Army, the State Department and the National Archives.

Items recovered from the flooded basement of the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters, before treatment.

Items recovered from the flooded basement of the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein’s intelligence headquarters, before treatment.

You might imagine that I would be thrilled with this new assignment. But truth be told, I was quite reticent. My team was up to its ears working on a new addition to the National Archives’ museum space – including the Records of Rights exhibit. The new project, at that time simply called the “Iraqi Jewish Archives”, had many stakeholders both inside and outside of government, and it was clear that forging consensus would be a challenging task. Once I was committed, however, I put my heart in it. By 2012 we had a full exhibit development team, a new exhibit title and a plan outline. Just as the exhibit was becoming “real,” I announced my decision to leave the National Archives and take up my current duties at the Jewish Museum of Maryland.

ija-logo-home

At the time I left the project there were plans for just two venues:  Washington and New York. So when I went to visit the exhibit in Washington shortly after it opened in November 2013 I thought that this would be the last time I would see this work.

In 2015 the tour was extended to include Kansas City, Yorba Linda (the Nixon Presidential Library) and Miami Beach. At a museum conference that year I learned that the National Archives was considering extending the tour so I hastened to put our name on the list.

So like persimmon sauce, sometimes our deeds follow us in unexpected ways.  But this time I get to taste it – and share it with you.

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