Highlights from the Detroit Arts Scene: Part I

Posted on March 2nd, 2012 by

A blog post by Senior Collections Manager, Jobi Zink


This week I went to Detroit, Michigan for the Council of American Jewish Museums (CAJM) conference.  I’ll be honest. I didn’t want to go. After all it was Detroit in February. I was expecting 3 feet of snow on the ground, whipping wind, gangs, abandoned houses, and open drug trade.

Axel Foley (character in Beverly Hills Cop), Rapper Eminem and the movie 8 Mile did not leave an overwhelmingly positive impression of Detroit.

After 4 days of touring museumsin the city and suburbs, my opinions have greatly changed! Mother Nature cooperating with 40 degree days certainly helped, but the arts scene was truly impressive.

It isn’t a trip to Detroit without some Motown.

The Cranbrook Art Museum is on a 175-acre campus. The museum just underwent a $22 million dollar renovation—I couldn’t wait to check it out! http:///www.cranbrookart.edu/museum/

Eliel Saarinen designed the museum in 1942. The sculpture and ponds seem like a natural extension of the building.

Rachel, Elena &LeighAnn relax on a bench in front of a Sol LeWitt mural, part of No Object Is an Island: New Dialogues with the Cranbrook Collection.

The Henry Ford Museum was another enormous facility—the galleries alone are 3 acres, and then there is Greenfield Village and the factory. We only had one hour to tour the exhibitions before sessions began on Monday morning. http:///www.thehenryford.org/

The “exploded” Model T allows visitors to see how the car is assembled, even without visiting the factory.

While many visitors are awestruck by the John F. Kennedy Limousine, I was charmed by Teddy Roosevelt’s Presidential horse-drawn carriage.

It was very powerful to hear the recorded testimony of Rosa Parks about why she didn’t move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, AL in 1955 while I sat in the very seat in the second row that she refused to vacate.

The “With Liberty and Justice for All” exhibition had the chair in which Abraham Lincoln was sitting when he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth at the Ford’s Theater in Washington, DC in April 1865.

Someone was working on one of the giant engines in the collection.

E.T. would have his choice of phones. While I didn’t see many cordless phones from the 1990s, the Iphone 4S is on display in the lower left corner.

Model kitchen from the 1930s made me think of the Chosen Food exhibition, as did the model kitchen at the Arab American National Museum.

The dome above a fountain in the lobby and mosaic in the hallway of the Arab American National Museum. http:///arabamericanmuseum.org/

No one from the CAJM contingency was surprised that there were suitcases at the beginning of the main exhibition, “Coming to America.”

The empty case was a powerful reflection of a refugees account, “we brought nothing with us.”

Docent Guy Stern, who just turned 90, gave us a personal tour complete with anecdotes of the “Ritchie Boys” exhibit that he curated at the Holocaust Memorial Center. www.holocaustcenter.org

Check back on Monday for Part II!

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Join Us In Motor City

Posted on July 15th, 2011 by

A blog post by Education Director Deborah Cardin.

“Detroit in February, really?” That seems to be the general response when I mention the location of the 2012 annual conference of the Council of American Jewish Museums (CAJM). Especially in light of recent conference venues (LA, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia), Detroit does not seem to register as much enthusiasm.

I have to admit to similar feelings as I landed in Detroit’s airport for a scouting trip in the beginning of June. As one of the conference co-chairs, I am involved in planning the conference’s content which includes site visits to other museums and determining venues for conference sessions. While initially skeptical, I came away singing the praises of Detroit and feeling incredibly excited about our conference locale.

Here’s what I learned about Detroit during my two-day visit:

Detroit has a large, wealthy, and close-knit Jewish community. With a population of approximately 78,000 Jews, Detroit’s Jewish community is among the top 25 cities in the US. (With approximately 90,000 Jews, Baltimore ranks slightly higher.) The community is largely centralized in several northern suburbs including West Bloomfield, Bloomfield Hills, and Farmington. (These statistics come from a 2005 demographic study sponsored by the Federation of Greater Detroit, http:///

Detroit’s Jewish community is exceptionally philanthropic. Despite recent economic woes, the JCC in West Bloomfield recently completed a major capital campaign and just opened The Berman Performing Arts Center. This beautiful state-of-the-art theatre has the capacity to seat more than 600 and its seats can be reconfigured to suit a variety of venue needs. Immediately, we started thinking about the possibility of including performances during the conference.

Berman Performing Arts Center

One of our conference host venues, the Janice Charach Gallery – a contemporary art gallery devoted to showcasing local artists – is situated within the JCC, along with Shalom Street, an interactive and experiential children’s gallery. (To learn more about the Detroit JCC, visit http:///www.jccdet.org/)

Our other host site for the 2012 conference is the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills (http:///www.holocaustcenter.org/) which is the nation’s first freestanding Holocaust museum.

Holocaust Memorial Center taken by Joshua Nowicki

We look forward to bringing conference attendees to these two sites as we explore the complex history of Detroit and the contributions of its Jewish community to the city’s artistic and cultural vibrancy.

Detroit is a culturally rich city. During our two day visit, our hosts – Terri Stearn from the Janice Charach Gallery and Stephen Goldman from the Holocaust Memorial Center –  took us on a whirlwind tour of some of its not-to-be missed treasures. Our first stop was probably the site that most epitomizes Detroit, the Motown Museum. What an amazing experience that was! Our fantastic guide took us on a tour of the museum, located in two houses which served as the former home of Motown founder Gordon Berry where he started his family’s music business. Speakers disbursed throughout the museum blared familiar tunes; its walls are plastered with posters of Motown artists (Smokey Robinson, the Jackson Five, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, to name an few) and album covers;

and cases include such fabulous artifacts as one of Michael Jackson’s famous sequined gloves. At the end of the tour, we walked into an old recording studio, and at our tour guides urging, starting singing and dancing to Motown hits. (For a sampling of Motown’s greatest hits, check out http:///www.digitaldreamdoor.com/pages/best_songs-motown.html)

Our next stop was the Detroit Institute of Arts, and a tour of its incredible exhibitions led by none other than the museum’s director, Graham Beal. The museum has recently completed a major restoration of its galleries and it was fascinating to learn about the process. A highlight of the tour was our stop at the Rivera Court where we viewed the Detroit Industry, an extraordinary fresco series painted by the famed Mexican muralist Diego Rivera (1886-1957) (http:///www.dia.org/art/rivera-court.aspx). (Go to http:///www.diegorivera.com/biography-2/ to learn more about Diego Rivera.)


View of Diego Rivera mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts

Another iconic Detroit institution is the Henry Ford Museum (www.thehenryford.org), an enormous history museum whose collections and exhibitions rival the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History. While our time was limited, we did have the opportunity to board the bus upon which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, as well as to tour Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House, built in 1945 as a solution to the need for mass produced affordable housing. Interestingly, there is no mention anywhere in the museum about Henry Ford’s virulent antisemitism (for more on this topic, check out the Wikipedia entry devoted to him: http:///en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Ford).

Dymaxion House

In addition to its many cultural resources, Detroit also provides a perfect backdrop for exploring how Jewish museums compare to and interact with other ethnic specific museums. During our stay, we visited the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History (http:///www.chwmuseum.org) which explores the history of Detroit’s African American community. Conversations about Detroit frequently relate to the problems that the city has faced as its more affluent community have fled to the suburbs and the challenges of urban renewal. During our visit, we kept learning about artists and grassroots organizations dedicated to solving these problems. One poignant exhibit at the museum explored the work of Tyree Guyton whose groundbreaking work, the Heidelberg Project, has transformed blighted neighborhoods through art and community building.

Heidelberg Project

We hope to include representatives of these organizations in our conference as a means of encouraging conversation about the role of museums in urban renewal and community building.

Our final stop before heading to the airport was, in some ways, the most meaningful. We visited the Arab American National Museum, the only museum in the US devoted to exploring the experiences of Arabs in America. (http:///arabamericanmuseum.org/)

Courtyard in Arab American National Museum

We were all struck by the many similarities in exhibition narratives about immigration, assimilation, and identity to our own institutions. The piles of suitcases and trunks in the section of the exhibition focusing on arrivals made me immediately think about our own exhibition, Voices of Lombard Street. Indeed, in many places, you could substitute the word “Jew” for “Arab” in the exhibit text, and it would not be necessary to change any other words! The staff at the museum is eager to work with us as we move forward with conference planning, and we are all looking forward to including a visit and to exploring how narratives of arrival, assimilation, and identity are interpreted in ethnic specific museums.

I left Detroit exhausted from all of our museum visits. At the same time, I was thrilled to reevaluate my initial misgivings about Detroit as a conference venue. Detroit is the perfect venue for exploring themes as varied as the social responsibilities of Jewish museums, the challenges of urbanism, and how we interact with other ethnic communities and museums. If you’re still not convinced about the merits of Detroit, check out this recent New York Times article: http:///www.nytimes.com/2011/07/03/fashion/the-young-and-entrepreneurial-move-to-downtown-detroit-pushing-its-economic-recovery.html?_r=1&src=ISMR_HP_LO_MST_FB.  The 2012 CAJM conference takes place February 26-28. Join us and become a Detroit booster too!

Photo credits:


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CAJM Conference Wrap Up

Posted on March 30th, 2011 by

Professional development is a valued activity at the JMM. Staff members are encouraged to attend lectures, workshops, and conferences. The benefits of learning new skills from experts in the field help us grow in our jobs as we gather information and resources that we bring back with us. Furthermore, these programs often provide opportunities to network with colleagues from institutions – large and small – from across the country and to learn about interesting and innovative programs taking place at other museums. While the benefits of these kinds of programs are obviously, it can sometimes be challenging figuring out a strategy for implementing what you have learned as it is so easy for the materials you gathered and notes you’ve taken to get buried as you return to the piles of work, phone messages, and emails that accumulate while you are away from your desk. Recently, I had the chance to attend Our Stories, Our Museums: New Chapters For Jewish Culture, the annual conference of the Council of American Jewish Museums along with several of my colleagues.

The conference took place at the recently opened National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia where nearly 200 professionals from Jewish museums from across the country (as well as from Europe) gathered for three intensive days of lectures, panel discussions, visits to museums, and networking. I left the conference feeling inspired by the amazing work going on at Jewish museums across the country and excited by the many model programs that I learned about.

NMAJH Core Exhibition

The tote bag that I received from the conference was filled with legal pads with notes scribbled furiously upon them from the sessions that I attended as well as resource materials distributed by session speakers, not to mention program brochures picked up from other museums. The bag sat untouched under my desk for a couple of weeks. Finally, I started going through materials and sat down to review my notes.

The bag in question, chock full of informational goodies!

One of the difficult decisions you often have to make at conferences is deciding which program to attend as multiple sessions are scheduled simultaneously. Do you attend the session with a panel comprised of several renowned museum professional sharing their collective wisdom from many years in the field or the session devoted to fundraising 101 complete with practical hands-on ideas? Go to workshop geared to my specific responsibilities at the JMM or a panel discussion on interesting topics about the museum field in general. Fortunately, as I went through my notes, I realized that because several other JMM staff members attend the conference and had the foresight to “divide and conquer” each of us had attended different sessions so we could share what we had learned with the larger group. We all decided to meet one day over lunch to compare notes and resources from the sessions that we had attended. This proved to be a wonderful strategy for reviewing session content and to continue brainstorming how we might collectively implement some of the ideas gathered at the conference.

Just a few of the many materials and notepads from the conference.

Of particular interest to our group was a session that I attended devoted to the topic, Turning Stories Into History: Transforming the Narrative Through Oral History and Digital Storytelling. Three speakers – representing three different Jewish museums (from New York, Connecticut, and Denver) discussed three very different techniques for incorporating oral history interviews and personal stories into exhibitions, films, and other programs. One of the speakers, Deanne Kapnik from the Mizel Museum in Denver, spoke about a new museum initiative, the Community Narratives Project, a collection of digital stories gathered from a broad cross section of Denver’s Jewish community that have become a key feature of a new permanent exhibit, 4,000 Year Road Trip: Gathering Sparks. (To learn more about this program, visit the Museum’s website.) This initiative resonated with our staff, as we have been working to develop creative ideas for how to develop new programs that integrate storytelling and oral history interviews for audiences of all backgrounds. This is definitely a program that we intend to learn more about as we move forward with our plans.

While many museums have been forced to cut back on professional development activities out of economic necessity, I am proud to work for an institution where professional development is still considered a priority. The benefits for both the staff attending as well as the institution are many – learning best practices from other professionals, gathering resources for programming and exhibit development, and meeting and networking with colleagues from other institutions.

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