Coincidence?

Posted on July 12th, 2018 by

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

From the beginning the Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini exhibit has been full of coincidences and surprises and  the surprises didn’t end on opening day.  Here is an amazing story from last week:

We held a member/donor preview of the exhibit on June 21.  In addition to our members and project donors we (as is customary) invited a select group of public officials to the event.  Among these was Maryland’s Secretary of State, John Wobensmith, who had been kind enough to participate in our opening for Yad Vashem’s Beyond Duty exhibit last February.

Secretary Wobensmith showed up for the Houdini preview carrying a folio.  He said “my grandfather was Harry Houdini’s patent attorney and I brought with some correspondence between them.”  I admit that this seemed like such a strange coincidence that I barely knew what to say.  Given the evening’s busy schedule, I did not have time to peruse the folio, but the Secretary invited me to his office in Annapolis to take a closer look.

Last Thursday I was able to make a visit and what I found was astonishing.  The Secretary had inherited not one small folio but at least three binders of material related to his grandfather’s work.  Moreover, James Chambers Wobensmith (1879-1973) was much more than Houdini’s patent attorney, he was a magician in his own right.  He founded the Philadelphia chapter of the Society of American Magicians and in 1930 was elected national president of the Society, immediately succeeding Houdini’s brother (Theo) Hardeen.  He was ultimately elected to the Society’s Hall of Fame.

It also turns out that Wobensmith wasn’t just Houdini’s patent attorney, but the leading patent attorney for magicians in his time (including patenting tricks of the famous magician Thurston). For the most part, Houdini avoided patenting his magic (he didn’t want to expose how his tricks were done).  His work with Wobensmith was focused on more pragmatic technologies, such as his “easy escape” diving suit, featured in our exhibit, or film development processes (from the days when Houdini ran his own movie studio).

Wobensmith was also a confederate in Houdini’s third act – his crusade against phoney mediums.  Wobensmith gave Houdini legal advice and even participated on stage in Houdini’s exposure of a particularly prominent Philadelphia Spiritualist.  Remarkably, Wobensmith’s work on the project did not end with Houdini’s death in 1926.  Mrs. Houdini (Bess) had offered a substantial reward to anyone who could bring her a message from her husband from the great beyond.  Wobensmith stepped in to protect the estate from unscrupulous frauds like “the Mysterious Raymond” who tried to trick a grieving widow into awarding them the cash.

But the most amazing thing I saw last Thursday was not a document with Houdini’s signature or a patent drawing.  It was one of several newspaper clippings about the Houdinis that Wobensmith had collected.  In January 1933, Bess Houdini gave an extensive interview to the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin (at one time America’s largest circulation evening daily).  Just two passages from the article will reveal just how interesting it was:

“I can’t give up the idea of someday hearing definitely from him [Harry}.  I suppose it is my early Catholic upbringing that makes me think perhaps the delay [in receiving a posthumous message from Harry] is penance for some act done long ago.

I never make any decision without calling on Harry for help – I get an answer, maybe from my subconscious mind, which knows from long associations how he would act under certain conditions.

Harry was religious.  He believed in the Jewish religion and in an afterlife where we would all be together.  He did not believe in spirit messages though he had an open mind and was willing to believe, as I am if he could be given real proof”

And later in the article –

They played many amusing games together [Bess and Houdini], which they never told for he was afraid of being thought sentimental.

They had no children, so Houdini created a dream child, a son named after his own father Mayer Samuel.  In their large New York home, he occupied the fourth floor, while his wife’s quarters were on the third.  He sent her many letters by the maid about how the son was getting on.  The letters only stopped when the son became President of the United States.

I closed the binder, thanked the Secretary of State, and as I exited I thought “how improbable was this encounter?” to learn something about the mind of Harry Houdini in a government office in Annapolis… it seemed about as likely as running into a Jewish magician at Artscape and deciding to create an exhibit!

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Unfolding Narratives – Scrapbooks and Their Interactive Stories

Posted on July 9th, 2018 by

Blog post by JMM intern Ash Turner. To read more posts from JMM interns, past and present, click here.

As I wrote a couple of blog posts ago, I’ve been mostly going through the collection’s scrapbooks, page by page, and registering them into the museum’s informational database. I had never learned about someone’s story simply through going through a scrapbook before. Sure, I’ve been shown scrapbooks when sitting down with family or friends, but never have I delved into someone’s own history and story simply by flipping through their hand-picked pages of memories.

Since I’m also an artist who enjoys making interactive stories, I wanted to talk today about the potential that scrapbooks have to create engaging narratives and interactive experiences. My personal reflections on the items, or objects (such as photos, letters, etc), placed in different scrapbooks hopefully can also be expanded and applied to creating educational material and telling history in a way different from textbooks.

So, without further ado, here are some elements that I’ve found in scrapbooks that are helpful to consider when creating any sort of story, whether it be educational or personal, a scrapbook or a piece of art.


Everyday Items – Revealing Untold Histories

Often in scrapbooks, small and forgotten everyday items are left in-between the pages of carefully placed photos and articles. I’ve found that many times these everyday items hold the most memorable facts. There’s a sense of time and place in these small items, because details that seem normal at the time may seem out of place decades later. These generational changes may not be something we were ever taught in history or social studies classes, although these small details still give a sense of what a time period was like.

These items or details are usually unintentionally included. Some types of significant, day-to-day details include:

1. Something placed in for a different reason, that includes additional interesting information.

For example, the most fun and interesting advertisements I’ve found are usually on the back of newspaper clippings and articles that someone intentionally placed in.

Clipping from “The Baltimore American” newspaper that includes a 1913 advertisement for corsets. Found in Jacob Epstein’s scrapbook, a gift from Richard Lansburgh, 1989.131.006.

2. A pattern that emerges through the addition of normal cultural and social items or details.

For example, through reading countless news clippings and invitations, I’ve realized that once a woman was married in the U.S. (at least up until the 1960s or so), it meant the disappearance of her name in every public sense. Only her husband’s name preceded by “Mrs.” would be used in any public context (e.g. Mrs. Jacob Franken), including in invitations, letters, and even newspaper articles that celebrated a woman’s achievements. To me, this illustrated the cultural norm of the time, and showed how women were recognized (or more so, the lack of their recognition as individuals).

These leftover items might not be what were meant to be kept, but their design and information is what becomes so intriguing in a different place and time.


Choice of Items – Showing Personality and Creating Mood

The items that people choose to place inside a scrapbook, or what they choose as keepsakes, tells a lot about what they feel is meaningful enough to remember. Some people feel facts and documentation are more meaningful, and others feel more sentimental items are important for them to keep. Items placed in a scrapbook hint at the personality of the creator, as well as shape the mood of the book itself.

Some common types of items I came across in scrapbooks include:

1. Reports and documents

Many times I found these to be common in a scrapbook of an organization or association. These items may reveal the creator’s care for history, actions taken, and accomplishments. They tend to create an authoritative and serious mood or personality for the book, especially because they tend to be very organized.

2. Newspaper articles

I commonly found these in scrapbooks that heavily focused on someone’s achievements or historic milestones. These items sometimes reveal people as caring highly about themselves, and caring about their achievements. They tend to create an eventful and formal mood for the book, and when they are used heavily throughout, they can create a sort of proud or self-important tone as well.

3. Personal Memorabilia

Some personal items I’ve come across in scrapbooks include bows from the corsages given at dances, love letters, or stickers from college fraternities. I commonly found these items in scrapbooks of individuals, or of those young or growing up. These items may reveal that a person cherishes feelings or the enjoyment of life, and can show a person’s interests. These items usually create a sentimental or heartfelt mood for the book.

A pink corsage with a ribbon, fake leaves, and wire butterfly from a school dance. Attached on a scrapbook page below burgundy “Junior Prom” tickets. Gift from Eleanor Yuspa, 2015.008.007

4. Tickets and Event Flyers

I commonly found these types of items in travel scrapbooks, or scrapbooks that focused on social engagements. These items reveal a care of seeing the world and being involved in culture and the arts. They many times include interesting graphics or illustrations, and so they create an excited and boisterous mood. However, depending on if the events or their locations are unusual, sometimes the mood created is mysterious and intriguing.

Various illustrated flyers and tickets for dance performances in Paris from 1936, attached to a dark green scrapbook page from Isaac Hecht’s family trip to Europe. Gift from Eleanor Yuspa, 2015.008.005.


Interactivity in Items – Unfolding Narrative

Scrapbooks hold the most value because of their interactivity. How someone chooses to move around and read the pages of a scrapbook is up to them—they can skip certain parts, go searching for a certain section, or only pay attention to the pictures while ignoring the text. Many scrapbooks have the added interaction of being able to touch objects that are included, and the different feelings of each surface become an engaging tactile experience.

Within scrapbooks, I’ve found that interactivity can be achieved through:

1. Interactive Objects

I’ve found so many items in scrapbooks cleverly placed in different ways on pages. Sometimes, letters were folded just so, so that closed, everything fit on one page (such as in the picture above). But to read any of the letters, I would have to open things one by one, cascading through the different items. Envelopes were sometimes glued to a page, so that letters could be tucked inside and pulled out again. This need to handle the items and put them back in their rightful place made the experience more intimate and memorable.

2. Tactile Surfaces

Since scrapbooks must be touched to be used, a mix of different surfaces creates different experiences for the viewer. For example, a nicer item may include a velvety material, while other items may be old and crinkly to the touch.

3. Page Layout and Item Placement

The layout of a page can lead the viewer’s eyes, which ultimately creates the flow of narrative on a page. Is a certain item placed front and center, overlapping over other pieces of paper? If so, a viewer might only look at the centered item, and they must be curious enough to choose to look at the other items. Viewers can interact by just following the page layout, or they can interact through searching for information by themselves, creating their own pathway through the story.

4. Mystery and Missing Information

Strange or out-of-place items can pique a reader’s curiosity. For example, an unknown name, place, or event might be referenced on a page. Since a scrapbook is historical, sometimes there are other means of looking up this information, which might not be explained in the book. Strange, small details (such as a place, phrase, or brand) that seem weird to us or out of place today can be looked up online. Sometimes, leaving details out, or having information spread out on different pages, creates a reason for people to dive deeper into the book themselves to find out more. These missing items or facts can drive a viewer’s curiosity and create a level of self-driven engagement and exploration.

Paper advertisement for “The Old Curiosity Shop” with a detailed and intriguing building illustration. Found in Isaac Hecht’s travel scrapbook. Gift from Eleanor Yuspa, 2015.008.005.

So, after all of this, what makes up a good scrapbook, or for that matter, a good story? Obviously, the content and objects found in a book are important, and so is the story that’s being told. But scrapbooks are filled with more than just photographs and information. Some contain newspaper articles, taped-in objects, small bits of writing, and letters. I found that it was the mix of different items and their personal touch that make scrapbooks and their history have so much depth. In a way, scrapbooks are similar to museum exhibitions—they contain a mix of informational text with personal and significant items to tell a specific story. They are curated, their items carefully selected by an individual or group, so that they can record a part of history. The main difference is that looking through a scrapbook can always be an individual or private experience, much like reading a book, rather than a public experience like visiting a museum.

It is really up to the readers in how they go through the pages, and what things they choose to touch or interact with. An extra layer of intimacy is created because of this self-direction. Some things are even not put on display in a scrapbook, unlike most exhibits—some things are tucked or hidden away between pages, sometimes there are missing photos or captions. When this happens, only through self-driven curiosity and exploration do readers reveal more of the story. This addition of mystery and interactivity is what really makes a scrapbook shine. When an engaging experience is added to nostalgic items, when there is a mood that is created throughout every aspect of a story, people tend to take those memories and experiences with them.

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Happy 5th of July

Posted on July 5th, 2018 by

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

In today’s Museum Matters I wrote about the 5th of July as a reminder that the struggle for the idea of America did not end on the 4th, it had just begun.

Actually, if there really is a multiverse, in some alternative universe everyone in North America celebrates the 5th of July as the day we saved the Empire.  For it is on July 5th, 1775 that John Dickinson persuades his fellow delegates to the Second Continental Congress to vote and sign the so-called “Olive Branch Petition”.  The document claimed that we were all “faithful subjects” of the king and that all this trouble between the colonies and England could be easily solved with negotiations over lower taxes and restrictive tariffs (I know it’s hard to believe, but there was a time when many Americans thought that low taxes and protective trade were more important than freedom and independence).

Here is the signature page of the “Olive Branch Petition” – notice the large John Hancock! Image via.

In another universe, King George might have read the petition, decided that it wasn’t worth risking the loss of his valuable possessions over an argument about business, and sent a delegation to make a deal to keep all North Americans a part of the British Empire.  In that universe, we would still salute the red, white and blue (just a different configuration).

However, in our universe, King George refused to even receive the petition.  In August 1775 the King formally proclaims the colonies to be in rebellion – that’s a full eleven months before the colonies themselves agree that they are in rebellion.

But on behalf of that other universe, let me wish you a Felicitous Fifth.

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