Posted on June 23rd, 2016 by Rachel
Every week we’re asking our summer interns to share some thoughts and responses to various experiences and readings. This week we asked them to report on the work they’ve been doing thus far.
Digging in to Collections
As an exhibitions intern, I have been doing background reading and research for the new core exhibit. Doing this work over the past two weeks has taught me two very striking lessons. First, I learned that PastPerfect, the software we use to search the collection, is incredibly useful! Sometimes I find myself messing around with different searches just to see what the collection has (There are forty-eight results for the keyword ‘cat’)! We’ve been using it to take stock of possible objects to use for the new exhibit. It has been very useful to see how JMM organizes and accesses their collections.
This needlepoint sampler is one of the many cat-related objects in the collection!
Second, I have started to learn how to match objects to stories. This may seem like a simple task, but it is very challenging when you find a great story but don’t have the objects to represent it! With the variety of the JMM collection, there are a myriad of stories to tell. One that I find very interesting is a letter written to Dr. and Mrs. Robert Hecht signed by thirty-five neighbors, stating, “You have had an offer to take the lot off your hands without any loss to yourselves. We respectfully, but urgently, request you to accept.” This is such an evocative example of the practice of redlining, which excluded Jews from upper-class neighborhoods, in Baltimore real estate. It will be interesting to see what Emilia (the other exhibitions intern) and I will find in the coming weeks!
A Little Time in the Shop
These last few weeks at the Jewish Museum have been fantastic. I meet with my supervisors in the morning to decide our itinerary for the day. Everyday around noon all eleven interns meet for lunch and we discuss what we are working on that day.
I am working directly with three other interns; Rachel, Anna and David. The three of us are working on several projects in the education office with Trillion Attwood and Ilene Dackman. I have mostly been searching for people to sit on a panel discussion this Fall on various topics regarding bioethics. The research has been fun and I am very much looking forward to the event itself.
In addition to the panel I attended our workshop on the Memory Reconstruction Project. It is a very exciting project by Lori Shocket that the museum is working on.
Some of the beautiful necklaces available in the shop!
Rachel and I also had the pleasure of taking inventory in the museum’s gift shop on Monday. The store is filled with beautiful jewelry and some very interesting books, I highly recommend visitors take a look.
Looking forward to the rest of the Summer!
Delving into Oral Histories
I’ve been interning with JMM for almost three weeks now, and although every day has had a new challenge, overall I’ve been working on just one enormous project—sifting through the museum’s entire database of oral histories for research on the upcoming weddings exhibit. There are over seven hundred of them! Luckily, previous JMM employees have set up an easy to use spreadsheet giving some information on the histories and many have been digitized. However, I still have to go through each and every one to look for weddings. Each oral history has its own charms: stories told by pillars of the Baltimore Jewish community, tales of small-town life from around Maryland, dramas and comedies and tragedies…and even, occasionally, a wedding!
Honestly, part of the reason I’ve spent over a week and a half on this project already is because I keep getting sucked into reading the whole transcript, forgetting that I’m supposed to be skimming for information on weddings and just losing myself in the wonderful stories told by so many different and yet connected people. For instance, the other day I looked through the transcript of Darrell Friedman’s oral history, which was such a cool insight into how the Associated worked and fundraised in the late twentieth century that I found myself reading the whole transcript all the way through, and not a word about weddings or marriage that I could use! Although on the outset this project looks tedious, being able to look through all of these significant lives and amazing people has been a gift for the history nerd that I ultimately am.
Making Lists Makes Exhibits
One of the biggest takeaways from my first three weeks as an Exhibitions Intern is learning that museums are built on lists. To-do lists, accession lists, item lists, exhibit theme lists; listing all of the various kinds of lists this place is built on would be a giant list in and of itself!
The lists I’ve been adding to are all related to the new core exhibit. Even though its installation is three years away, the new exhibit requires such research and preparation. It might seem excessive, but it allows time for grants to be applied to, and objects the collections lack to be acquired. At the beginning of our internship, Alice and I received a list of themes conceived by Marvin, the executive director of the JMM. We divided up chapters of the yet-unpublished book On Middle Ground, which gives a detailed history of Jewish life in Baltimore. We took a long list of notes (51 pages of a Google Doc, to be precise!) and from there, compiled a new list of our favorite stories. The next few days had us digging through PastPerfect, the digital collections database, for objects which would help us tell those stories- which we copied down to create, indeed, yet another list!
A list of items related to traveling mohels (ritual circumcisers) of Maryland.
Now that all of this research has been taken care of, we get to create a very fun and important list. This will be a list of the best of the best stories and objects we’ve found, organized by which themes they fit, which we will present to Marvin in a meeting tomorrow.
Perhaps all of these lists sound redundant to you, but to me they represent all of the time and energy that goes into the creation of a single exhibit. Before I started becoming a list-compiler myself, I took for granted how much organization and forethought is behind the museum exhibits I’ve admired in past experiences. Exhibits represent years of communication, between museum staff members, between museums, between curators and individuals. When you first walk into, for example, Beyond Chicken Soup, the placard introducing the exhibit also includes a sidebar of all the people who have contributed to the creation of the exhibit, in some way or another. Now, as one of the many list-makers behind the new core exhibit, I look forward to coming back in 2019 and seeing my name on such a placard (listed, of course, at the very bottom with the other interns!)
A Look Into Collections Inventory
Every object has several histories from what lead to its creation, how it was used, and how it ended up in the shelves of a small Jewish museum. As I go through the collections room doing inventory I try to tell some of these stories, knowing I won’t be able to find them all. I am inventorying the framed collections, containing photos, artwork, awards, signs plaques, and other mementos that someone felt were frame worthy. I check to make sure the object is where it is supposed to be, in stable condition, and that there is enough information in the database that it can be easily searched for various research projects. Some of the objects have a wealth of information, telling where and when they were created and for what occasion. There was a photo of a synagogue singing group that had on the back a letter from one of the former members detailing when and where the group met, where they sang, who the director was, and details about why the organization disbanded. Several of the frames have information about who framed them on the back. A surprising number of them were framed at the same locations. Some of the most interesting items are the framed letters as they can tell you about both the writer and the recipient.
Figure of a Woman, Collage by Mark Shecter
The artwork in the collections is a category all to itself. It ranges from reproductions and prints of works by famous painters to unknown originals by local artists. Some of the originals stun me with the level of craftsman ship they show. Some of the ones that stuck out to me are a beaded Jewish star and a collage made of construction paper and pharmacy slips. I’ve found all kinds of prints, some of scenes from Israel, there are illustrated pages from prayer books, several beautifully illustrated awards, depictions of Jews, and several different depictions of Moses. The most interesting depiction of Moses found so far is one where the lines are actually the fifth book of the Torah in Hebrew and the description under is in several different languages.
Moses drawn from the 5th book
Sometimes the objects leads me on a bit of a chase, where there is not enough information on the artwork or the inventory sheet for me to determine key information, like what it depicts or when it dates to. That is when I have to do some research. Sometimes a quick google search can fill in some of the gaps, if it is a print of a more well know piece of art. If I have absolutely no clue what I am looking at a trip to the accession records may be needed. Often times I find that the best resource is asking for second opinions and taping into the knowledge of Joanna, the collections manager.
Annual Meeting Follow Up
One of the best parts of interning at the museum is the variety of projects. I clump these projects into two categories- long-term and short-term. For me, long-term projects usually involve researching and brainstorming, while short-term ones leave me with something physically completed at the end of the day. My favorite short-term project thus far involved learning how to use iMovie. I attended JMM’s annual meeting and heard Dr. Perman, president of University of Maryland, Baltimore, give a great talk about income inequality. The next day, I learned to combine the recording of his speech with his PowerPoint slides to make a presentation for JMM’s website. While the program director, Trillion, worried that the project would bore me, I actually enjoyed closely listening to the talk again and cutting the slides at just the right time for the perfect transition. Plus, now I know how to use iMovie!
Working with slides from the annual meeting.
Two of the more long-term tasks I’ve been working on are a self-guided tour of the Lloyd Street Synagogue and many projects featuring Henrietta Szold. Before this internship, I barely recognized Szold’s name. Now, I know all about how she, a Baltimorean woman like myself, not only founded Hadassah but also founded a night school for Russian immigrants as a young adult and helped save thousands of teenagers from the Holocaust as an older woman. It’s hard not to feel inspired by her, and I’m excited to help raise awareness about her to the Baltimore and Jewish community.
I’m also finally receiving costumer service experience: a must for applying to many “college student” jobs. Working at the front desk has proved much more enjoyable than I anticipated. While I experienced a minor heart attack the first time the phone rang, I quickly came to enjoy the ringing, because it means I don’t know what’s about the happen or what the person calling needs – and that keeps things interesting. Between many other long-term and short-term projects, each day brings something new to learn and experience.
What Have We Been Up To?
My last blog post was about the intimacy of small work environments and how quirky and involved they are. This translates well into the kind of work being done here. As part of the Education and Programs department it is my job to help come up with program ideas, help with school groups and with tours in general.
Currently I and another intern are working on self-guided tours for the Lloyd Street Synagogue. There will be two versions, one for visitors who are well acquainted with Judaic terminology as well as a more vocabulary based version for those who are less familiar. Additionally, I was given the opportunity to design the brochures so I was thinking something modern with a twist of “cartoon”. It’ll look good, I promise.
Hard at work in the West Wing!
I am really excited to be working in such a kind community. Learning about the Lloyd Street Synagogue and watching the school groups learn about Jewish history it has showed me the importance of the preservation of history. I love that the Jewish Museum goes above and beyond for their exhibit by hosting so many events, so that everyone who wants can get the most out of it. It is refreshing to see so many people caring about a community and its longevity.
To read more posts by and about interns click HERE.
Posted on June 22nd, 2016 by Rachel
“We’re going to have a party! A page-turning party!” Joanna turns around while she walks and smiles as she tells me the plan for the day, which includes working on my oral histories project and, apparently, now a party. She goes on to explain that some of the historical manuscripts in the exhibit Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews and Medicine actually need to have their pages flipped every three months to prevent damage. I nod, and she tells me and my fellow Collections intern Tamara to be ready after lunch. At two, I head back to the library, ready to party it up in the exhibit as promised, and run into Joanna holding a power drill and pushing Maxine, one of our carts specially designed for carrying artifacts (bubble roll taped to a moving cart, very high-tech). Now, I’m excited—power tools AND artifacts? I eagerly beg to use the drill and Joanna laughs as she hands it over. We pick up Tamara and we’re off to the exhibit.
Joanna explains the process further as we set up to start changing the manuscripts. Books as old as these (ours are from the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries) are delicate and sensitive to light and climate. Having the books open can damage pages, and too long under even gentle lights is bad for the book. Joanna explains that it’s unusual to have artifacts this old at JMM, since it’s an American-based museum. However, these books are from the collection of prominent Baltimorean Jew Harry Friedenwald and are all about medicine, making them perfect for the exhibit. The books aren’t actually part of the museum collection, though; they’re on loan to us from the National Library of Israel. Joanna describes how the books came overseas, and the process of loaning them: “The books got their own seat, first class! Our budget did not like that.” They came all the way across the world with their own librarian to be in this exhibit, which I thought was very cool.
Fun with power tools!
Carefully, I begin to use the drill to take out the screws holding the glass cover in place over the shelf in the wall designed for climate, humidity, and light control. After we remove the first glass case, I ask Joanna if she needs to be wearing gloves, since the books are so fragile. Joanna says no—she’s following the “clean hands” policy of collections work, in which she washes her hands to prevent oils and bacteria from her hands damaging artifacts like these books but doesn’t put on gloves so she still has the ability to feel what she’s doing. Joanna explains that this is the best policy since she’s more likely to notice if something is going wrong if she can feel what she’s doing, like a page about to tear or the book about to fall. The JMM Collections team mostly follows the “clean hands” policy, the only exception being for artifacts that are metal that might be unhealthy for humans to touch.
Joanna ever so carefully turns the pages of In Dioscoridis Anazarei de medica material by Amatus Lusitanus c. 1558.
After she washes her hands, Joanna takes out the first book on its stand, carefully placing it on Maxine in order to turn the pages. Each book had been placed carefully in the shelf on a book stand that Joanna tells us was precisely designed to fit the books and the pages they’re currently on, even so far as having to have their plastic melted and reshaped numerous times on the day the exhibit was installed in order to achieve perfection. Joanna checks her list—each book has a specific page to turn to in order to reduce the damage as much as possible. One of the interesting things about collections work, I’ve learned, is that all exhibiting does damage to artifacts. It’s unavoidable. For instance, for the upcoming weddings exhibit, one of the primary considerations for the dresses is whether or not they can withstand exhibition, since textiles are especially sensitive to such exposure. However, without exhibiting an artifact, why would we keep it? The best way to preserve an artifact is store it in a windowless, lightless, lifeless box somewhere, but it’s importance to the museum is in using it to teach about history, and that’s impossible without exhibition. Next, Joanna carefully removes the plastic holding the book pages down and turns the pages as we all watch; she jokes that she’s nervous, having never worked with artifacts this old before, but the pages turn fine and we get through all the books without any mishaps.
Although it might have been peculiar to think of this page-turning as a party, I did have fun seeing behind the scenes of how museums keep up their exhibits and manage to compromise between an artifact’s need for shelter and a museum’s need for exhibit. I realized that there’s a lot more work and thought put into each and every aspect of exhibition and collections than I had ever considered and that artifacts such as these books are actively preserved by the museum, not simply encased in glass and left on display. When we visit museums nowadays, all too often the glass cases and small placards can make us forget that these objects are real, but watching Joanna turn the pages on a book so many centuries old was definitely an eye-opening look into the physical materiality of artifacts and the daily preservation work of museums.
A blog post by Collections Intern Gina Crosby. To read more posts by and about interns click HERE.
Posted on June 22nd, 2016 by Rachel
I thought I’d take some time to share some of the visitor feedback we’ve received at the Museum whether on post-it notes in the Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews and Medicine in America exhibit, comment books in the Voices of Lombard Street exhibit or expressed to me at the front desk.
The comment board
At the end of the “Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews and Medicine in America” exhibit, visitors have the opportunity to share their thoughts and feedback by leaving post-it notes on a board. Here is a selection of some of the comments we’ve received:
“I love the structure and the interactive exhibits!”
“Exhibit called my attention to things about which I’d previously been unaware”
“Varied, informative, entertaining – Wow!!”
“Very informative exhibit that invites visitors to explore the Jewish medical experience and to also see themselves within the context of its evolving history. Thanks!”
“So fun! I feel like I have gone back in time!”
I suspect that the person who wrote the last comment may have been referring to features such as the recreation of a corner drugstore.
We also had a few comments from graduates from the Sinai Hospital School of Nursing saying that they had a wonderful experience and that the exhibit brought back many memories.
As I was walking through the Voices of Lombard Street exhibit, I noticed that our visitors had completely filled out the comment book at the end of the exhibit. It was a pleasure reading through it the book and hearing about visitor’s connections to our neighborhood. One visitor thanked us for reviving memories of his youth. Several others remarked how the exhibit reminded them of how their immigrant grandparents grew up.
Another described coming down to Lombard Street with her father to get corned beef while also playing with the chickens in the wooden cages.
In addition to written feedback, I sometimes get people coming up to the front desk telling me stories of their connections to Jewish Baltimore or of their connection to our collections. A few days ago, I heard from a rabbi who went on the Lloyd Street Synagogue tour that his great grandfather, was the melamed, or teacher of the synagogue from the Bavarian village of Gaukoenigshoffen, where one of our Torah scrolls came from.
The scroll he was referring to was our Kleeman Torah which was rescued by Louis Kleeman during Kristallnacht in 1938 and then smuggled out of Germany in 1940.
This story had a tragic end because on March 24, 1942, the 40 year old Jewish community of Gaukoenigshoffen disappeared when the remaining 37 Jews were deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp.
Despite the sometimes sad stories I hear, one of my favorite parts of my job is hearing how our exhibits and collections touch visitors and often reconnect them to a part of their past that they thought they had lost. I hope you will all continue to leave your feedback!
A blog post by Graham Humphrey, Visitor Services Coordinator. To read more posts by Graham click HERE.