JMM Insights: Dross into Gold

Posted on November 18th, 2016 by

In the middle ages, alchemists sought out the philosopher’s stone that could turn base metal into gold.  They never found it.  But in 19th and 20th century America, entrepreneurs, mainly poor immigrants of Jewish or Italian heritage, found a way to turn waste materials into productive assets – in the process, not only transforming metal, rag and rubber, but also their own lives and their own communities.

In October 2018 the Jewish Museum of Maryland will launch a major national traveling exhibit called American Alchemy: Junk to Scrap to Recycling that will for the first time bring the largely untold history of this industry to a wider public.

Bales of rags. Shapiro Company, Baltimore, Maryland, 1942

Bales of rags. Shapiro Company, Baltimore, Maryland, 1942

We have been laying the groundwork for this project for nearly a year (in fact its origins go back to ideas generated in 2008).  We have been researching photos and artifacts, assembling an exhibit team, developing budgets and funding plans.  But it was just yesterday that the project had its formal launch as we invited leaders of scrap businesses from across the region to convene at JMM.  Neal Shapiro, former president of Cambridge Iron and Metal here in Baltimore, and a consultant on the project helped assemble the gathering.  We took them through Beyond Chicken Soup:  Jews and Medicine in America – a project that has much in common with our new venture:

> a similar scale and blend of “real things” and interactive experiences;

> a paired effort to explore both history and technology (and for the American Alchemy exhibit we will also add the art of recycling);

> an exhibition that works equally well for school groups and general visitors.

After the brief tour, I described our concept – it has a scope that stretches from an ad for scrap brass and copper by Paul Revere to the first car shredders to the latest metal analyzer guns.  I also explained that while it would inevitably have a lot to say about the Jewish community (it’s estimated that just a few decades ago 80% of all scrap CEOs were Jewish), this particular exhibit was about the whole story of the industry – and would include people from all ethnic backgrounds who made the transformation from push carts to global enterprises possible.

An automobile graveyard outside Baltimore, Maryland, August 1941. Courtesy Library of Congress.

An automobile graveyard outside Baltimore, Maryland, August 1941. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Next, we swapped stories.   We learned about businesses with unlikely sites (e.g. Jersey Shores, PA), unlikely artifacts (e.g. a terrorist bombed Israeli bus – it was saved, not scrapped) and unlikely misfortunes (e.g. what happens when you drop a large battery in downtown DC).  But more importantly we learned that we were “family” – as some of the senior members of the group recounted their memories of the parents and grandparents of their assembled “competitors.”  Even I got to tell a few stories about the scrap metal and rag businesses owned by my family – and lessons learned that carry over to my work in museums.

So many stories around the room

So many stories around the room

On Monday we take the next step in our project’s development – a team meeting in New York, with our curator, Jill Vexler (also grew up in a scrap business household) and our designer, Alchemy Studio led by Wayne LaBar.  We’ll be taking this huge topic and compressing it to 2,000 square feet – even a bigger trick than compressing a car into a bundle of metal with a hydraulic press!

If you are reading this newsletter and happen to have photos or documents related to the scrap industry, please contact Deborah Cardin at  If you are just interested in learning more about the exhibit and staying in the loop as our plans progress feel free to contact either Deborah or me.

-Marvin Pinkert

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Once Upon a Time…02.26.2016

Posted on November 15th, 2016 by

The Baltimore Jewish Times publishes unidentified photographs from the collection of Jewish Museum of Maryland each week. If you can identify anyone in these photos and more information about them, contact Joanna Church by email at


1994053079010Date run in Baltimore Jewish Times:  February 26, 2016

PastPerfect Accession #:  1994.053.079.010

Status: Groundbreaking for the Beth Israel Congregation chapel wing, circa 1984. Center: Lois Wolf; right, her husband Larry Wolf

Special Thanks To: Gloria Seidel, Jerry Langdam


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Performance Counts: Strathmore’ Museum Shop Around

Posted on November 11th, 2016 by

This month’s Performance Counts is by Tracie Guy-Decker, Associate Director of Projects, Planning and Finance and Manager of Esther’s Place, the JMM Museum Shop.

The JMM Shop

The JMM Shop

Those of us who have strong affiliations with and affinity for an individual museum—whether as staff, volunteer or visitors—like to believe that our museum is one-of-a-kind. In our minds and hearts, it is a snowflake, truly unique and special. And we’re not wrong. Every museum is unique and special in its own way. It is also—whether intentionally or not—part of an international franchise with a recognized brand.

Museum shops enjoy a similar umbrella brand in many consumers’ minds. As a part of their museum experience, shoppers visit museum stores to take home a part of what they saw and learned. As a stand-alone brand, the Museum Store is known for uncommon and interesting finds. It is a destination for the discerning shopper and especially as we start to approach December, for the gift-giver in search of the perfect item.

One of our sister-franchisees, Strathmore, has been capitalizing on the strength of the Museum Store umbrella brand for more than a quarter century with their annual Museum Shop Around.

The Strathmore Mansion

The Strathmore Mansion

This four-day event brings together loads of special-snowflake shopping experiences under one roof. And though this is their 27th year doing it, they’ve never done it quite like they will in 2016: this year, Esther’s Place: The JMM Shop will have a space!

You can support JMM—and all of the wonderful participating museums—by coming by Strathmore between Thursday, November 10 and Sunday, November 13. There’s a small entry fee to get in (much like a craft show), but that gets you access to 18 different museum stores, all in one trip!

The Strathmore Museum Shop Around was introduced to JMM staff by our colleague Joanna Church, who participated with a previous employer (another sister franchisee). Joanna, Devan and I have had a great time selecting just the right products to take with us. We’ve done our best to select key highlights that will excite, entertain and tempt our customers—whether they are shopping for loved ones or themselves!

This event is a great opportunity for us to find new customers and sales for Esther’s Place. Just as importantly, it helps us to gain exposure and visibility for JMM to a group of people who may or may not know we exist.

Setting up "Esther's Place" at Strathmore Mansion

Setting up “Esther’s Place” at Strathmore Mansion

Our products for sale at Strathmore will include fine Judaica from designers like Michael Aram and Jonathan Adler. We will also feature home goods, children’s gifts, jewelry, books and tchotchkies. In fact, if you come by JMM this weekend, you may notice that Esther’s Place seems to have a little less of a selection than usual—we want to make sure we make you proud in Rockville!

Other Museums who will be represented include the National Archives Foundation, International Spy Museum, Just Imagine!, The Shop at Imagination Station, National Geographic and the White House Historical Association (another first-time attendee). See the full list of participating museum stores here.

Whether you’re interested in doing some Chanukah (or Christmas) shopping or just want to see what’s available, I highly recommend making the drive. Most participating shops offer a discount while they’re at Strathmore (we will be offering 10% off), and there are raffle prizes and other fun add-ons. Look for us on the second floor when you get to the mansion!

A blog post by Associate Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

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