Why Museums Need Guinea Pigs

Posted on September 22nd, 2014 by

A few days ago we had our first opportunity to test out the educational programs we’d created for school groups visiting The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen exhibit. The 8th graders at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School were brave enough to sign up to be our guinea pigs!

Picture 1

Checking out the exhibit

Going into it, our education staff was unsure if we could manage more than ten students at a time inside the maze. Nightmareish images of children hiding in unseen corners and running roughshod over the interactives flooded our minds. Limiting the number of students allowed in the maze at one time would of course make planning field trips for large groups very awkward. We had to be creative about our use of time and space. The plan we came up with was based on the average group size of 40 students. We would split them in half—20 and 20—between Voices of Lombard Street and The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen. The 20 in Mendes Cohen would then be split again—10 and 10. The first group of ten would be led through the exhibit, while the second group did an archival activity in the Orientation Space. They would switch at 15 minutes, and then, at the half hour mark, switch with their classmates in Voices, and repeat.

Picture 2

Hard at work

We learned a lot by observing a school group go through the exhibit. The first thing we learned—much to our relief—is that it’s not as terrifying to take students through the maze as we’d imagined. We decided that it would not be impossible to even take up to 20 students at a time. The next thing we learned was that we really needed to give the students more time to go through the exhibit. It has so much to offer—from the fun of going through a maze, to the neat objects on display, and the hands-on interactives dispersed throughout the corridors and “rooms”—and no one was benefitting from having to rush through it.

The teacher also expressed her disappointment that we had put as much emphasis on the archival activity as on the exhibit itself. She felt that the archival activity could as easily be done in the classroom as at a museum, and she’d hoped for a more hands-on experience for her students. While I don’t think we should completely discount the appropriateness of utilizing our primary resources during a museum visit (many schools have limited access to these kinds of resources), we did take her critique to heart.

Afterwards, we went back to brainstorming:  how could we supply just enough structure to make the school’s visit intellectually stimulating without making it seem like just another day in the classroom? How could we best get a group of students to not just walk through the maze, but to actually engage with its content? We had previously assumed that these two activities had to be separated—hence the archival activities. Now we needed to come up with a way of bringing the two together.

A major theme of the exhibit is the puzzle of Mendes Cohen’s complex identity. The exhibit seeks to demonstrate the different aspects of his character with his objects, letters, and actions. There are puzzle pieces scattered throughout the exhibit that list his attributes—e.g. “Family Man” and “Proud Jew.” Each of these puzzle pieces lifts up to reveal a question about how we know that Mendes was all of these things. At the end of the exhibit, we turn the question to the visitor: what are the attributes that make up you?

Picture 3

A “make your own” puzzle piece

It was this central theme that led our Education Director, Ilene Dackman-Alon, to a breakthrough idea. For the next school group that visits us, we will ask the students to work in pairs to find each of the puzzle pieces in the exhibit, and to write down the answer to each one’s question.  At the end of the exhibit, we will ask them to think of attributes that describe their own class. Each pair will contribute their attribute to a piece of the class puzzle that they will then get to take back to school with them!

We are very excited about this new plan! It can be daunting to have to go back to the drawing board after working so hard to come up with the first lesson plans, but actually knowing what it looks like to take a school group through the exhibit helped us shape what we hope will be an even better one.

 

abby krolikA blog by Visitor Services Coordinator Abby Krolik. To read more posts from Abby, click here.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Performance Counts, September 2014

Posted on September 19th, 2014 by

Baltimore Embraces its 19th Century Heritage

The good news is “we won.”

You probably noticed that there was some commotion this weekend about events that took place two centuries ago.  Beyond the Blue Angels, the rockets red glare and the Spanish galleon, there was a genuine embrace of the relatively tiny group of defenders who made sure that the flag and the nation was still there.

We are intensely proud of having been a part of the Star Spangled Celebration week, a chance for us to remind the public of the long roots of the Jewish community in this city and this state.  Of course, JMM’s focus was on one particular defender: the truly amazing Mendes Cohen.

Collections Manager Joanna Church and Assistant Director Deborah Cardin install Mendes' newly conserved jacket.

Collections Manager Joanna Church and Assistant Director Deborah Cardin install Mendes’ newly conserved jacket.

Installation of the maze was completed on September 7th.  We had a sneak preview for donors, members of the 1845 Society and the Lloyd Street League, and members of the board of our partners, the Maryland Historical Society on September 9th.  Feedback was extremely positive as reflected in notes we received after the event:

We were totally impressed with the A-mazing Mendes exhibition and appreciated the amount of research, talent, and work that went into the project.

Your exhibit is absolutely wonderful and a great tribute to Mr. Cohen. Of course Mendes is good story material. What a fun concept and I am recommending you to my whole staff.

‘The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen’ exhibit turned out really great! Fantastic Preview last night! Can’t wait to return and stroll “The A-Mazing… “ more slowly and a chance to absorb much more of its rich history.

Enjoying a few drinks at the Amazing Cocktail Hour sneak preview party.

Enjoying a few drinks at the Amazing Cocktail Hour sneak preview party.

This past Sunday was a very busy day for our living history actor.  Unlike the real Mendes Cohen who overslept on September 14 and had to run to his assignment at the fort, our “ghost” of Mendes started his day bright and early at Super Sunday.  As Mendes was one of the early members of the Hebrew Benevolent Society (a precursor of The Associated), we thought it was important Mendes participate in this annual effort to raise funds to serve the Jewish community in Baltimore and around the globe.

Mendes takes a few calls at Super Sunday!

Mendes takes a few calls at Super Sunday!

The next stop was the Creative Alliance’s “Hampstead Hill Festival”, marking the land battle that helped save the city.  Mendes not only gave a full performance (battling unexpectedly fierce winds) but also participated in an 1814 fashion show.  After Hampstead Hill, we made a brief stop at the Inner Harbor greeting guests to the Greater Baltimore History Alliance booth.

Mendes takes his bow to the applause of former JMM president Barbara Katz and the rest of the audience.

Mendes takes his bow to the applause of former JMM president Barbara Katz and the rest of the audience.

Mendes returned to JMM for a wonderful members’ opening.  The program included greetings from Debs Weinberg and Barbara Katz, Mendes’ short-version 1812 performance and a panel comprised of some of the creative and historical experts who made the exhibit and living history character a reality.

Part of the evening's panel.

Part of the evening’s panel.

If you missed this great opening week, you can still be a full participant in the Mendes Cohen celebration.  We are still busy recruiting volunteers for our stint as part of the Maryland Public Television fund drive on Sunday, September 28 from 5pm to 8pm.  Your willingness to volunteer a few hours at MPT will guarantee us on air access to an important audience.  For more details contact Rachel Kassman at rkassman@jewishmuseummd.org or call 410-732-6402 x225. 

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




The Making of An Exhibit – Mendes Arrives!

Posted on September 17th, 2014 by

After many months of hard work developing The A-mazing Mendes Cohen exhibition, JMM staff members were eagerly awaiting its arrival by truck on September 3 from Seattle. What many people might not realize is that exhibits do not arrive fully constructed and that the task of assembling and installing the exhibition structure, text panels and artifacts is complex necessitating the work of a team of individuals. Here is a behind-the-scenes look at the Making of The A-mazing Mendes Cohen.

Day One

The first moving truck arrived at 9am. Luckily our forklift and driver arrived just in time to help take the crates off the truck.

The first moving truck arrived at 9am. Luckily our forklift and driver arrived just in time to help take the crates off the truck.

Exhibition designer and maze builder extraordinaire, Kelly Fernandi of Minotaur Mazes enjoys his ride on the forklift making sure that the crate stays in place.

Exhibition designer and maze builder extraordinaire, Kelly Fernandi of Minotaur Mazes enjoys his ride on the forklift making sure that the crate stays in place.

Our orientation space which serves so many purposes became our temporary storage space for the crates.

Our orientation space which serves so many purposes became our temporary storage space for the crates.

Because we are recycling a maze structure from another exhibition (Chimp Adventure that was recently on display at the Kansas City Zoo) not all the parts in the crate are being used for The A-mazing Mendes Cohen. Here, Susan Press, Joanna Church and Darrell Monteagudo unpack and sort crate contents.

Because we are recycling a maze structure from another exhibition (Chimp Adventure that was recently on display at the Kansas City Zoo) not all the parts in the crate are being used for The A-mazing Mendes Cohen. Here, Susan Press, Joanna Church and Darrell Monteagudo unpack and sort crate contents.

Once the parts are unpacked, we begin installation. First task, arrange metal pipes in appropriate spot on the floor around the gallery using this floor plan as our guide.

Once the parts are unpacked, we begin installation. First task, arrange metal pipes in appropriate spot on the floor around the gallery using this floor plan as our guide.

 Where the heck do they all go? (Fortunately, Kelly was checking all my work and rearranging as necessary!)

Where the heck do they all go? (Fortunately, Kelly was checking all my work and rearranging as necessary!)

Once all the floor pipes are arranged, we then got to work attaching them to one another. Everyone got very good at using a hex wrench to tighten connections, a very important step!

Once all the floor pipes are arranged, we then got to work attaching them to one another. Everyone got very good at using a hex wrench to tighten connections, a very important step!

The outline of the maze becomes apparent as the floor pipes are connected.

The outline of the maze becomes apparent as the floor pipes are connected.

After all the floor pipes were in place we then began attaching vertical poles. You can see Susan Press in the corner making sure all our connections are very tight. This was a great job for Susan!

After all the floor pipes were in place we then began attaching vertical poles. You can see Susan Press in the corner making sure all our connections are very tight. This was a great job for Susan!

After a few unsuccessful attempts at getting the ceiling pipes in place, we decided to call it a day.

Day Two

Despite feeling sore in body parts we didn’t even know existed, installing the roof pipes went much smoother the second day. Do you see the maze starting to come together?

Despite feeling sore in body parts we didn’t even know existed, installing the roof pipes went much smoother the second day. Do you see the maze starting to come together?

Once we have the metal frame structure in place, it’s time to begin work on the maze panels. Here they are laid out on the lobby floor.

Once we have the metal frame structure in place, it’s time to begin work on the maze panels. Here they are laid out on the lobby floor.

Kelly provides a tutorial in hanging panels. Sadly, he will have to repeat this lesson several times before it really sinks in.

Kelly provides a tutorial in hanging panels. Sadly, he will have to repeat this lesson several times before it really sinks in.

Ilene Dackman-Alon and I start to get the hang of it (pun intended!)

Ilene Dackman-Alon and I start to get the hang of it (pun intended!)

Panel successfully hung!

Panel successfully hung!

Program manager, Trillion Attwood, became an expert wielding cable ties. Who knew they made such wonderful hair accessories!

Program manager, Trillion Attwood, became an expert wielding cable ties. Who knew they made such wonderful hair accessories!

Once the panels are hung, we go back through to make sure that all the screws are tight.

Once the panels are hung, we go back through to make sure that all the screws are tight.

Another long day but the end is almost in site!

Day Three

The third day was largely devoted to installing artifacts in cases.

Textile conservator, Michele Pagan, arrived with the flag that Mendes made to hoist up the sail as he traveled on the Nile. Michele has been working for several weeks to fill in the color of the red stripes that have faded and to repair the paper stars that have disintegrated. Here she is gently cleaning the flag before its installation in a special case designed and fabricated by Mark Ward.

Textile conservator Michele Pagan arrived with the flag that Mendes made to hoist up the sail as he traveled on the Nile. Michele has been working for several weeks to fill in the color of the red stripes that have faded and to repair the paper stars that have disintegrated. Here she is gently cleaning the flag before its installation in a special case designed and fabricated by Mark Ward.

Sanchita Balachandran, registrar at Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum, arrives with a sampling of the Egyptian artifacts that Mendes collected while in Egypt. She and Joanna worked to unpack and install the objects in their case.

Sanchita Balachandran, registrar at Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum, arrives with a sampling of the Egyptian artifacts that Mendes collected while in Egypt. She and Joanna worked to unpack and install the objects in their case.

Next up, the fabulous red jacket that Mendes purchased during his travels. Michele Pagan did some conservation work on the jacket as well. To the best of my knowledge, this exhibit will be the first time that the JMM has displayed many of the wonderful treasures in our collection belonging to Mendes.

Next up, the fabulous red jacket that Mendes purchased during his travels. Michele Pagan did some conservation work on the jacket as well. To the best of my knowledge, this exhibit will be the first time that the JMM has displayed many of the wonderful treasures in our collection belonging to Mendes.

We left most of the heavy duty installation jobs to Kelly. Here he is installing one of the exhibit’s many interactive, a map where visitors can take a stab at tracing Mendes’ journey.

We left most of the heavy duty installation jobs to Kelly. Here he is installing one of the exhibit’s many interactive, a map where visitors can take a stab at tracing Mendes’ journey.

Day Four

Feeling much more rested after taking a day off, we spent Sunday working on final details.

Our fantastic lighting designer, Rich Pullman, did a heroic job navigating the maze frame to install our new LED lights. Once the lights were in place the exhibition finally came to life.

Our fantastic lighting designer, Rich Pullman, did a heroic job navigating the maze frame to install our new LED lights. Once the lights were in place the exhibition finally came to life.

Kelly spent much of the day working on exhibit interactive and straightening maze walls and panels.

Kelly spent much of the day working on exhibit interactive and straightening maze walls and panels.

One final touch, vacuuming!

One final touch, vacuuming!

Now that you know about all the fun we had putting it up, we hope you will join us to see how it all turned out. The A-mazing Mendes Cohen opened on Sunday, September 14 amidst Baltimore’s Star Spangled Spectacular. And while the fireworks may be over, The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen and all his adventures are ready for you – look forward to seeing you here!

deborahA blog post by Assistant Director Deborah Cardin. To read more posts by Deborah, click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




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