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Hanging Out in Philadelphia

Posted on September 5th, 2019 by

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

I spent the last week in August in Philly.

It wasn’t exactly a summer vacation, more of a busman’s holiday. I had been invited to attend a feedback session on the Community Catalyst Initiative being developed by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). This was followed, two days later by the annual meeting of the American Association for State and Local History. In between, I had a chance to visit the Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes exhibit at the Franklin Institute, the recently developed Philadelphia Holocaust Memorial Plaza, the Barnes Foundation and the new Museum of the American Revolution. I skipped NMAJH, Eastern State Penn and the Philadelphia Museum of Art on this trip, because I had visited those fine museums earlier this year.  I also met with former JMMers Avi Decter and Melissa Yaverbaum, who send warm regards to all their friends in Baltimore.

What did I learn from my sojourn to the city of brotherly love? Let me start with the friendly neighborhood Spiderman (pictured above) – one of several life-size figures in the exhibit positioned as photo opportunities. While the exhibit contained many original pieces of artwork, original artifacts from the movies, film clips and interactive devices, it was these statues that were the clear stars of the show. People came to the exhibit because they were interested in the stories of the Marvel characters, but they were even more interested in seeing themselves as part of that story. In many ways, the “theme” of the week was self-reflection in public spaces.

That theme could certainly be found in the demonstration of Augmented Reality (AR) in the Rare Books room of the Free Library of Philadelphia. There we were treated to a prototype of a new software package that combined a search for clues with AR icons as a reward. For example, finding three clues related to Edgar Allan Poe would make a squawking 3-D raven appear on your screen. Visitors could then put themselves into the picture, appearing to hold or pet the raven. The software, designed by Night Kitchen Interactive in Philadelphia, is something we might think about incorporating into a future core exhibit. I found an earlier version of what was demonstrated at the library at this online site.

The idea of a virtual presence was also an important part of the development of the new Philadelphia Holocaust Memorial Plaza.

Built on the site of America’s first Holocaust Memorial (a statue by sculptor Nathan Rappaport) right on the Ben Franklin Parkway, the plaza allows visitors to access the voices of Holocaust survivors tied to both the textual and aesthetic elements of the space. These pillars, for example, compare the US Constitution to the legal and social systems of the Third Reich. Voices accessible on your phone via the iWalk app allow you to hear witnesses of the deprivation of liberties in Germany. Yet another idea we might build on.

The Museum of the American Revolution is well worth a visit. While it remains at its core, a museum of military history, it goes out of its way to tell the battle story through multiple perspectives: loyalists as well as rebels, native peoples and African Americans, and women in many different roles. It benefits from a corps of knowledgeable docents who are proficient at tailoring the experience to the interests of their audience.

This map of North America at the start of the Revolution is typical of the scale and scope of their presentations.

Lest you think my week was all fun and games, there was serious business at both conferences. The IMLS workshop offered participants the opportunity to test and review new tools under development for helping museums engage with their communities. Tools like “Journey Maps” (sample below) help institutions to track and evaluate projects that involve substantial community engagement over a period of years.

We’ll be using this type of tool to map the development of our Evolution Plan.

The AASLH Conference was co-sponsored by the Sites of Conscience organization, an international coalition of more than 275 historic sites and museums dedicated to “turning memory into action.” The title of this year’s conference, “What are We Waiting For?”, was a reference to the desire of much of the history museum world to engage in the tough work of swimming in the troubled waters of our times, paired with the fear of drowning in contemporary controversies.

One of the best workshops I attended at the conference was on “dialogic conversations” – a methodology for engaging visitors in difficult conversations in the hope of opening up channels for discourse in a polarized nation. Hint: the method involves asking questions that make the visitor a part of the story. Some of this thinking may be incorporated into future JMM exhibits and programs.

So last summer was Houdini and this summer was Spiderman – I can truly say I get my best ideas just “hanging around.”


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JMM Insights: Fun (with a serious purpose)

Posted on January 22nd, 2016 by

I would be the first to admit that we’ve had a great deal of fun with our recent projects – “Paul Simon: Words and Music”, “Cinema Judaica”, “The A-mazing Mendes Cohen” but in this JMM Insights I want to remind us of why this type of fun matters.  You can call this my version of a “State of the History Museum Address”.

I begin with an observation: Today we sit within an ocean of information, never have so many Americans had easy access to eyewitness accounts of history; visual databases of historic artifacts; timelines, graphs and charts of every description.  Yet it is hard to argue that we have a deeper understanding of our past.  Politicians and pundits invoke an imaginary past with impunity – pretending, for example, that Japanese internment was a solution to a real problem in WWII or that slavery wasn’t the primary cause of the Civil War.  Nonsense is repeated with the same authority as fact and we lose our grip on reality.

So why don’t more of us take advantage of available resources to make ourselves better informed?

  1. We lack motivation and inspiration – this is where the “fun” part matters; we need to build good habits for exploring history the same way you would develop good habits for physical exercise or reading books – you need for lower barriers of engagement and increase rewards of participation. History museums are particularly good at this.
  2. We don’t see ourselves as history “makers” – we offer labs for science courses because we know that true understanding of scientific processes is more durable and deep when people make discoveries for themselves; history is not commonly taught this way in school – often relying exclusively on secondary sources written decades or centuries after the events. History museums allow visitors to “uncover” information from original sources.
  3. As a society we don’t value history. To many of us in the museum field today this is the most troubling cause of our collective version of Alzheimer’s. Most of us have heard of STEM, some of us have heard of STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) but for at least a generation the history community has been pretty quiet about promoting its brand.  Public history has been starved of resources both within the formal education system (social studies as it turns out was “the child left behind”) and in public support for history museums, historic sites and historic parks, all of which lost government funding in the 2008 recession – and to put it politely, “have not participated in the recovery.”

A group of us have decided the time has come to change the public dialogue.  At the AASLH meeting in 2013 there was the formal launch of a national History Relevance Campaign, spearheaded by Baltimore’s own John Durel.  For more information on the Campaign check out their website:

The core of the Campaign is the Value of History statement – a common expression of the public history community.  Both the Jewish Museum of Maryland and the Greater Baltimore History Alliance endorsed the statement this fall.  If you feel as we do, I urge you to download a copy of the statement for yourself – share it with friends and family and let people know why history isn’t just a “nice-to-have”, it’s an essential.

Closer to home Preservation Maryland is organizing a Preservation and History Advocacy Day in Annapolis on February 9.  This year Preservation Maryland has included new funding for history museums in its advocacy agenda in addition to its ongoing strong support of the Maryland Heritage Area Authority.  In a subsequent newsletter we will share details on how you can let our legislators know that history matters to you.

MarvinA blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.

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Louisville: Bourbon Barrels, Baseball Bats and Big Ideas

Posted on September 24th, 2015 by

Sandwiched between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Ilene Dackman-Alon and I attended the 75th annual meeting of the American Association for State and Local History, held this year in Louisville, KY.  It was a great opportunity to tour museum sites, confer with colleagues, discuss industry trends and return with ideas to improve JMM.  Here are a few of the highlights:

1. Serving the Visually Impaired – Ilene attended a workshop at the American Printing House for the Blind. Founded in 1858, APH is the oldest organization of its kind in the United States. From 1858 until the Civil War began, APH organized its operation and raised funds to create embossed books. After the war, APH produced its first tactile books. By the early 1870s, APH was operating on a national scale. APH is the official supplier of educational materials to all students in the U.S. who meet the definition of blindness and are working at less than college level.  We saw the actual printing of pages with Braille letters as well as the binding of the books.


An APH educator

An APH educator

It was fascinating to hear from museum educators (who happened to be visually impaired as well) about how they experience museums and the importance of making museums accessible to all types of learners using a variety of interactives and engaging materials for all of the  senses.  I loved seeing all of the different tactile materials that are produced at APH in so many subjects (music, math, science, English arts, social studies).  They even showed us the Braille version of the program from President Obama’s Second Inauguration.

A display on music at APH

A display on music at APH

I was pleased to see that that many of the steps that the JMM has taken to serve the visually impaired under the leadership of Robyn Hughes are in line with best practices at APH. As we move forward in creating new exhibits at the JMM, I hope we can implement some of the ideas such as wheel-chair level chair rails, Braille texts and panels to create a richer museum experience.


Trilobite touch wall at Falls of the Ohio State Park.

Trilobite touch wall at Falls of the Ohio State Park.

Marvin took a tour of neighboring historic sites and also had a chance to see some interesting work being installed at the Falls of the Ohio State Park (just across the river from Louisville) where a firm had integrated tactile exploration into every part of its core exhibit.

2. We also enjoyed hearing the keynote speaker, Sam Wineburg, author  of  Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.  Wineburg is an educator at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education.  He recently developed the Reading Like a Historian Curriculum which has been downloaded  over 2  million times.  The curriculum engages students in historical inquiry, one of the basic pedagogic skills that is a thrust of the Maryland Career and College Ready Standards and Common Core curriculum.  Each lesson revolves around a central historical question and features sets of primary documents designed for groups of students with diverse reading skills and abilities.

Wineburg  used the term “digital natives” to describe the generation that has grown up in the digital age.  The Internet provide us with so many different websites .  One of the questions that he raised,  Who is an Informed Citizen in the Digital Age?  How much of the information on the web should be believed?  Wineburg spoke about  “The Digital Tookbox”  and questions that one must ask to realize if the information and website really come from a reliable source.  He spoke about a case study that took place in Los Angeles, where teachers gave the students three websites and had them write about the reasons for the Holocaust.  All three website had not been vetted, and many students took the information on the website as absolute facts.  They went on to write essays with claims that the Holocaust never took place.

3. The history relevance campaign – a group within AASLH (among the leaders, Baltimore’s own John Durel) is trying to create energy on a national campaign to promote the value of history.  The effort was a response to the marginalization of history as a subject matter, both in schools and in the public conversation about cultural institutions.  The organizers  are stressing a common vocabulary that organizations like ours can use in making the case for greater civic and foundation support:!value-statement/ca2m.  In the coming months I will be urging Historic Jonestown Inc., the Greater Baltimore History Alliance and the JMM Board to add our voices to this national movement.

4. A different way of looking at historic sites.  The archeologist giving the tour at the Farnsley-Moremen House began his talk by saying “no one famous or important ever lived here, it was not the site of a battle or any other monumental event.”  He went on to demonstrate, however, that it was a great site to talk about historical thinking and to engage the public in the process of uncovering history.  It caused me to think deeply about the balance we need to achieve between fixing our gaze on the important historic events that took place in our synagogues and on our block – and the illustrations we can offer through these spaces about “how we know” the lives of average Jewish Marylanders.

At the Falls, Jay was just a stiff, at Farnsley-Moremen House he was our very lively guide.

At the Falls, Jay was just a stiff, at Farnsley-Moremen House he was our very lively guide.

5. “Unfolding Events” – in many ways this was the most thought-provoking session I attended.  It was an open forum discussion about how museums could/should respond to “unexpected events” that have strong impacts on the cultural community – examples included Ferguson and Baltimore, the legislative struggle over gay rights that especially impacted Indiana, and the debate over Confederate flags, statues and emblems that is raging within and without Civil War sites.  One of the most interesting side-bars was the question of the obligation of museums to collect materials on political and social controversies that impact their respective communities.  This is a topic we raised at this week’s JMM Collections Committee.

6. One more honor for Mendes Cohen.  Ilene and I have to admit that one of the highlights was taking home the Leadership in History Award for the A-Mazing Mendes Cohen project.  What a great tribute to the whole team that put together this incredible project.  On the morning of the awards ceremony, Ilene and I staffed a booth explaining the background of the exhibit and living history character.  The most bittersweet moment was that nearly everyone who came by the booth said “when can I come and see it” and we had to explain the unhappy fact that the project had expired.  It certainly was an inspiration to bring back some of this experience within our new core exhibit.

Our poster presentation

Our poster presentation


Poster Accessories

7. Finally – full confession – we also had fun.  Marvin attended a workshop on “gamification” of museum content.  For someone whose two top passions are board games and museums this was as good as it gets.  On Thursday night we took a stroll down “Whiskey Row” – now home to several museums including the Frazier Museum (with a great homemade exhibit and theater program on Lewis and Clark) and the Louisville Slugger Factory Tour.  Here you see me holding Mickey Mantle’s baseball bat (but that’s only because Hank Greenberg’s wasn’t available).

A true Louisville Slugger

A true Louisville Slugger

But by far my most unusual Louisville experience was attending a small reception at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience.  This is the home of a business that proclaims itself Kentucky’s first commercial distiller.  It is indeed still a family owned business – except that family is not the Williams’ it’s the Shapira’s that have owned the parent company, Heaven Hill, for seven generations (for those of you who attended the Schnapps with Pops program in June, this comes as no surprise).  The tour of the faux factory was entertaining and it ends with a bourbon tasting.  I’m afraid the 23 year old bourbon was wasted on my uneducated palette.

Video screens informed you how to properly "taste" the bourbon.

Video screens informed you how to properly “taste” the bourbon.

Next year this conference moves to Detroit.  I’ll let you know if they let us test drive a Corvette.

A blog post from Executive Director Marvin Pinkert and Education Director Ilene Dackman-Alon. To read more posts by Marvin click HERETo read more posts by Ilene click HERE.

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