Intern Weekly Response: Project Updates

Posted on June 21st, 2018 by

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 share about their projects here at the Museum. To read more posts from JMM interns, past and present, click here.

Exploring the Lloyd Street Synagogue

-Intern Alexia M. Orengo Green

By now I’m three weeks in on my internship at The Jewish Museum of Maryland and the experience has been great. I have been able to work on various projects regarding the Lloyd Street Synagogue. This incredible building constructed in 1845 is the first synagogue in Maryland.   Even though the synagogue’s history and architecture are impressive, they are not the only things that make the building significant. It is the synagogue’s impact on the Baltimore Jewish community that makes the synagogue unique.

Exterior of the Lloyd Street Synagogue Photo from the Jewish Museum of Maryland webpage.

My first project regarding the Lloyd Street Synagogue was updating the archival inventory of the synagogue. During the duration of this project I went through hundreds of documents concerning the synagogue. This project allowed me to learn about previous research done regarding the synagogue and the various restorations the building has had throughout the years. What stroke me the most from this project was the hard work and dedication the staff from the Jewish Museum of Maryland have put throughout the years to have the synagogue recognized by the city as a historical building. Without this hard work and dedication Baltimore would not have the Lloyd Street Synagogue.

Cuspidor from the Lloyd Street Synagogue exhibited on the “Voices of Lombard Street” exhibit. Photo by: Alexia M. Orengo Green.

After finishing updating the archival inventory I began working with the archaeological artifacts excavated in the Lloyd Street Synagogue. This project has fascinated me! I’ve been cataloguing and describing each of the artifacts found. I’ve been able to encounter fabric, ceramics, and even iron nails! What I love the most about this project is getting to study each artifact and see how it fits on the Lloyd Street Synagogue narrative. Every time that I work with archaeological artifacts I try to imagine how they used to look at their period and who used them. I believe this helps putting the artifacts on perspective and helps me connect with the story.

Both projects have been wonderful, and I can’t wait for what is next!

“Inescapable: From Script to Reality”

-Intern Cara Bennet

One of the coolest parts about working in a museum is seeing an exhibit that was once just an idea and some words on a page come to life. Over the past few weeks I have been working on updating the Houdini exhibition script to make sure that the text and labels match the panels that have actually been installed in the exhibit. Usually the script should be finalized before text panels have been printed but I’m learning that sometimes you just have to go with the flow and tweak things along the way. Reviewing the script has been a great learning experience. The Houdini exhibit has been a good example of the different ways an exhibit can be broken up into themes and still tell a consistent narrative. Reviewing the script has also given me an excuse to read every piece of text that has gone into this exhibit. Although I try, I’m never able to read every label and text panel at museum exhibits. Reviewing the script has made me appreciate how much effort and research has gone into this exhibit. Each label and text panel has been written to tell a fascinating story in a relatively small amount of space.

Behind the scenes…exciting things are happening!

After spending days reviewing the script, floorplans, and renderings I got the opportunity to watch the exhibit come to life. It has been so cool watching the exhibit come together piece by piece. While I haven’t had any experience with exhibit installation, this week fellow intern Alexia and I got to help clean all the vitrines in the exhibit. This may not sound super exciting, but it was so cool to get to contribute to this exhibit in some small way. Alexia and I also got the opportunity to help arrange the handcuff display. While we were concerned at first that the handcuffs and picks wouldn’t stand out enough against the black velvet fabric, the objects ended up showing up. I’ve learned that a small museum sometimes you just have to work with what you have and make the most of it.

Alexia and I were only slightly concerned about being trapped in the vitrine. Luckily, we weren’t asked to perform any Houdini inspired escapes.

Making Magic

-Intern Elllie Smith

For the last few weeks I have been helping prepare for the Houdini opening and the Jonestown Festival. For the Houdini opening we constructed houses of cards for table decorations and a card mobile that will decorate the lobby area. We will be making magicians hats and wands at the Jewish Museum of Maryland table at the Jonestown Festival. I spent my time last week prototyping the crafts. I was surprised how long it took me to figure out the exact measurements for the wands and the hats.

I am excited to see the culmination of all of our hard work at both of the events.

When I was not working on crafts and decorations for Houdini I was beginning researching for a pair of exhibits that will open next spring called Stitching History from the Holocaust and Fashion Statement. Stitching History is a traveling exhibit which was created at the Jewish Museum in Milwaukee.

It tells the story of a woman who attempted to gain asylum into the United States during the Holocaust. She tried to prove her value with her fashion designs. She unfortunately was not granted access into the United States and perished in the Holocaust. Her family in Milwaukee kept the designs and donated them to the museum where they were brought to life and now travel around the country. Fashion Statement will be an original exhibit created here at JMM which focuses on the Maryland connection to fashion and designs. I will continue to do research and work to develop programs for both of these exhibits.

For the education department I have been working on creating bags that can be taken on tours of the synagogues to engage children. The activities in the bags will be based around the Synagogue Speaks book. I am working on developing an activity booklet that parents can pick up at the desk before their tours. I am also working on the education aspects of Stitching History and Fashion Statement which include creating lesson plans and activities for school groups. It is a very exciting time at the museum right now and I look forward to seeing what the rest of the summer holds.

Planning Ahead

~Intern Marisa Shultz

It’s been a busy, but extremely exciting start to my internship here at the Jewish Museum of Maryland; let me catch you up on what I’ve been working on! Over the past two and a half weeks, I have started two major, overarching projects that I will work on throughout the course of my internship.

The first is planning programming for the Jewish Refugees and Shanghai exhibit from the Shanghai Jewish Museum that is set to open during the Lunar New Year of 2019. The exhibit explores the experiences of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution who settled in the port city of Shanghai, China. I feel well-equipped and especially excited for this task, as I studied Chinese in both high school and college. Last week, I spent a great deal of time familiarizing myself with the stories of the survivors of the Hongkou ghetto. From there, I have begun brainstorming programs. So far, I have found several potential speakers, a few hands-on events, and many activities for family day, and I am excited to continue looking for and planning programming that is educational, experimental, and fun!

The other major project is creating bags of activities for parents and grandparents to do with their children in the Lloyd Street Synagogue; these activities will be a supplement/experiential element to the book The Synagogue Speaks. So far, I have been working on finding ways to introduce families to the different congregations that used the Lloyd Street Synagogue, as well as providing an opportunity for parents and grandparents to teach their children about Jewish customs and traditions. I hope to make the bags modular, so the experience will be new and fresh each time a family returns to the museum. I have had the pleasure of working with Ellie Smith on this project and am looking forward to continued collaboration!

In addition to these projects, Ellie and I have both been hard at work on the final touches for both the Preview of Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini (6/21) and the Magic of Jonestown Festival (6/24).

I don’t want to give too much away and ruin the magic of surprise, but here is a sneak peek!

I have also been prototyping and building the “code books” for the Vanishing Elephant education program, which will help the kids crack the magic code! I am super excited to see this program in action!

It’s been an incredible two and a half weeks, and I am so proud to be part of this institution this summer!

Histories Found in Scrapbooks

~Intern Ash Turner

Daintily placed prom tickets and corsages. House addresses written neatly on envelopes. Valentines and birthday cards tucked between pages. I’ve been milling through all the odds and ends found in scrapbooks these past weeks, either to write detailed documents of what I find, or to search for specific information.

So far at the JMM, I’ve been learning how to process donated objects, mostly scrapbooks, and I’ve been learning how to correctly handle these objects. I’ve never looked through a stranger’s scrapbook before, much less written up a whole document on someone I don’t know based solely off of what they put in a scrapbook. I’ve also been able to see first hand how scrapbooks stay together and fall apart through the years.

Gift from Eleanor Yuspa, JMM 2015.008.008.

I’ve mostly been surprised by how tangible these different decades, these histories, feel to me now. Sure, I can read in a book about where someone lived in the 1930s, or read facts about who they married and when. But there’s something so much more fulfilling and engaging when you are looking for something else, flipping through pages filled with small objects and scraps of paper, and stumble upon someone’s address, only to realize that they lived on the same street as you – although they lived there 100 years ago.

Tickets pasted into Isaac Hecht’s travel scrapbook from a trip to France. Gift from Eleanor Yuspa, JMM 2015.008.005.

I’ve developed a deeper sense of how Baltimore as a city has changed, even just through the early to mid 1900s. I also appreciate, more than I did before, scrapbooks and the people who make them.

Picture inside Catherine Hecht’s scrapbook. Gift from Eleanor Yuspa, JMM 2015.008.004.

Although I’m only a few weeks into my internship, I’m really looking forward to handling more objects, more slips of paper and newspaper clippings, old advertisements and cartoons. I’m looking forward to the history, and the stories, they hold. I also am hoping to learn more about Baltimore’s history and my own sense of connection to its Jewish roots.



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Intern Weekly Response: Museums and Neutrality

Posted on June 14th, 2018 by

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 read a pair of articles by Gretchen Jennings on museum neutrality and find a third related article to explore and reflect on. To read more posts from JMM interns, past and present, click here.

The two articles presented were “The Idea of Museum Neutrality: Where Did it Come From?” and “Thoughts on Museum Neutrality: A Question of Balance.”

“Museums are Not Neutral. Nothing is Neutral.”

-Intern Cara Bennet

As Gretchen Jennings notes in her blog post, the debates surrounding museum neutrality are complex and often revolve around how we define “neutral.” Museum professional Seema Rao joins the debate in her blog post “Are Museums Neutral? Or are they Neutered?” Rao argues that any choice a museum makes negates its neutrality. Museums reveal bias in the items they choose to collect, the stories they choose to tell, and the way they choose to tell them. Rao explains that “Any history is based on decision and interpretation. When you present that history, you are supporting those decisions. You might not see those decisions. You might believe those ideas to be facts, but assuredly, other facts have been left out.”

Museums are not neutral. Image via.

The objects and stories that are excluded say just as much about a museum’s biases and values as the objects and stories it includes. Instead of striving for the unattainable goal of neutrality, museums should strive for balance. By acknowledging that there are multiple perspectives to every story, museums can become spaces for critical discourse. Museums can educate visitors just as much by challenging their perspectives and sparking conversations as they can by teaching them facts.

Nothing is Neutral.

Cara selectedAre Museums Neutral? Or are they Neutered?By Seema Rao as her third article.

“Choosing the Story:

-Intern Alexia Orengo Green

When a curator chooses the pieces that are going to be exhibit, the curator selects how the story is going to be told. The curator must choose which artifacts contribute more to the story that is intended to be told. If there is something that impacted me from the first article by Gretchen Jennings regarding museum neutrality was her definition of “neutral”. Jennings writes: “Perhaps what neutral means is “normative,” i.e museums should reflect and represent-but not question-what already exists.” This definition made me a little uncomfortable because as a history major, my professors have taught me to question what we know, to ask who, what, and why constantly. By questioning what we know, we can learn new things and discover new narratives.

Exhibition from the Eastern State Penitentiary. Image via Pixabay (CC0 Creative Commons).

I believe that museums should display what we know and challenge the visitor just as the Eastern State Penitentiary did.  Their exhibit regarding mass incarceration in the United States as is showed on the third article I selected, interacts with the visitor by putting him or her in a “thought-provoking” position. By doing this, the visitors are neutral while learning about a new topic while at the same time questioning what they thought they knew. This notion also goes with Jennings second article in which she concludes that the new trend of needing museums to give a sense of “closure” takes away the neutrality.

Hall of Remembrance from the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum. Image via WikiCommons (Public Domain).

In the museum world as it can be seen with these three articles the topic of neutrality is important. As an intern, I believe the best way to be neutral is to research and look at the evidence in a non-bias way. By doing this, one can notice details that would not have seen otherwise. The museums’ work is to take the evidence that was gather and create a narrative that engages and challenges the public. The museums’ work is not to give “closure” to the visitor like Jennings said or to only represent what we already know.

Alexia selected Merritt, Elizabeth. “Beyond Neutrality.” American Alliance of Museums, Center for the Future of Museums Blog. August 23, 2016 as her third article.

“Intentional Non-Neutrality”

-Intern Marisa Shultz

To speak of my experience in the history classrooms of my upbringing is to speak of dates, names, trade routes, maps, wars, and amendments — namely a factual foundation, the who, what, when, where, and sometimes why. To speak of my experience in college is to speak of debate, engaging research, and dissecting the perspectives of other historians — namely, interpretation, or how we choose to understand and remember historical figures and events. While the former provided the necessary knowledge and information, the latter challenged me to understand history as commentary; time and time again, historians engage in intellectual battles over how a particular figure or event should be remembered.

Let me give you an example: John Brown, one of the most controversial figures from Antebellum Untied States. In 1859, Brown led a raid on a Federal Armory in Harpers Ferry in what is now West Virginia. Brown’s goal was to encourage slave uprisings in the local area, and to secede from the union to make a slavery-free country. Ever since Brown was captured and hanged that very year, historians have debated almost every aspect of Brown’s life, and have depicted him as a martyr, a terrorist, a religious zealot, a delusional lunatic, and a desperate man looking to make a lasting mark on history. In these interpretations of Brown’s life, he was still a failed businessman, the head of his family, and the raider of the armory. These facts do not change, but the interpretation does. This is the core of historical debate and controversy.

A small selection of books I own that debate the legacy of John Brown’s life.

A small selection of books I own that debate the legacy of John Brown’s life.

The historic firehouse of the armory, where John Brown was captured. The firehouse now stands close to its original location and is part of the Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in West Virginia.

Okay, so how does any of this relate to the questions surrounding museum neutrality? What I found so fascinating about the articles “The Idea of Museum of Neutrality: Where Did It Come From?” and “Thoughts on Museum Neutrality: A Question of Balance” is how they defined museum neutrality. Gretchen Jennings distances museum neutrality from “accuracy and… well-researched conclusions.” Rather, to Jennings, museum neutrality has the “connot[ation] of non-involvement, nonendorsement of any view.” Dan Spock on the other hand strikes a slightly different chord when he argues that museums should seek a balance in historical perspective – “acknowledg[ing] the absent narrations in the historical record”. For both of these individuals it is the presentation and interpretation of the exhibit topic that raises the ethical dilemma – should we recognize, allow, and even promote these interpretations, or should we not take a side in the historical debate? Both Jennings and Spock argue that it is essential to acknowledge and curate specific interpretations that are supported by factual evidence and strong research, as many of the historians of Brown have done in written form.

I was curious as to how like-minded museums were incorporating this concept into their exhibits, so I turned to Dr. David Flemming of the International Museum of Slavery in Liverpool, England. Flemming, in the article “Museums Taking Stand for Human Rights, Rejecting ‘Neutrality’” described that “you can’t dictate to people what they’re going to think or how they’re going to react. But you can create an atmosphere.” A museum cannot force its visitors to understand the artifacts and narrative in a particular way, but it can portray a particular interpretation, and thus help guide their visitors to potential conclusions. What is so essential here is that Flemming and the museum’s staff have determined their interpretation and have intentionally curated and designed exhibits and programs around the message and lesson they want to promote. It is this intentional non-neutrality, that is trying to leave the visitors with a call to action, that will undoubtedly influence and positively challenge its visitors.

Marisa chose “Museums Taking Stand for Human Rights, Rejecting ‘Neutrality’” by A. D. McKenzie for her third article.

“Objects Tell Stories”

-Intern Ellie Smith

Traditionally museums have been looked at as places where history and facts are displayed. But the reality of how museums function is much more complicated. Museums are responsible for displaying objects that have great cultural significance to many individuals and groups of people. These objects can tell the stories of people whose voices have been marginalized and ignored. By claiming impartiality or neutrality museums can avoid approaching difficult and controversial topics. But if the history of the object being displayed is controversial then it should be the museum’s job to present an accurate history of the object. Museums are spaces where challenging topics can be discussed in an informative and accurate way.

Museum neutrality raises the issue of what objects are being displayed. Displays themselves are inherently biased because the objects have to be chosen by curatorial staff. Some objects make the cut and others do not. The objects that are being displayed have voices all their own but some voices are being heard over others. Based on what objects are being displayed a different version of history is being told.

The significance of each object also changes depending on who is viewing the display. Objects from specific cultural or religious locations will represent something different to a member of that group verses to another museum patron. An object that is deeply meaningful to one group maybe considered unimportant to others. If the object is not considered important it will not be displayed and that story is lost. The differing views on objects also changes whose story is being told. Objects are not just things; they are the link to people of the past. These people had unique stories and lives. In order to do objects justice, we must tell the whole, albeit sometimes difficult story. Museums can no longer ignore objects with controversial or challenging histories. History is constantly being rewritten based on new information and research. Museums need to reconsider the history of their collections and include objects that challenge visitors to think about the past and its relationship to the present and the future.

Ellie chose Mark Busse’s “Museums and the Things in Them Should Be Alive” as her third article. Full citation: Busse, M. (2008). Museums and the Things in Them Should Be Alive. International Journal of Cultural Property, 15(2), 189-200. doi:10.1017/S0940739108080132

 “Accurate, Balanced, and Questioning” 

-Intern Ash Turner

This week, the interns were tasked with reflecting on the value of neutrality in museums. After reading Gretchen Jennings sum up her thoughts on what the word “neutrality” really means for museums, I feel that the biggest problem the idea “neutrality” has is that the word itself is out of date and vague.

Besides the fact that full neutrality is not completely attainable, neutrality even means something different for each museum and exhibit. As Gretchen Jennings stated, “…neutrality on some topics is offensive in itself.” This quote stuck with me, especially because we’re interning at a Jewish museum. If the Jewish Museum of Maryland took a “neutral” stance on the Holocaust in their exhibits and didn’t show any empathy for Holocaust survivors, or even if they showed both sides, the nazis and their victims, as equal, then it would probably be offensive. But if a museum of natural history took a neutral approach to an exhibition about insects, it probably wouldn’t be that offensive. Different subjects and collections require different approaches to the content. A blanket term like “neutral” doesn’t really work for the wide variety of museums that exist.

Seemingly neutral exhibits aren’t always neutral. This Smithsonian exhibit is funded by pest control brand Orkin, who states on their page: “The O. Orkin Insect Zoo teaches that insects play a vital role in the environment, and they only become pests when they damage human health or property.” Image via.

I’ve also heard the JMM talk about “upstanders” when speaking about those who intervened to help during the Holocaust, as opposed to those who watched “neutrally” and were “bystanders.” If museums are neutral, then they are not being an upstanding source of authority for those wishing to learn from them. If they are bystanding and letting the current and future issues that challenge our society pass by, then they are not helping others to learn from past mistakes and apply knowledge to create positive change. If museums stand up and shift their focus to “effectiveness and inclusion,” like the Eastern State Penitentiary (and their article which sparked this whole conversation about museum neutrality), then museums can help create positive change.

A pertinent quote. From past JMM exhibit, “Remembering Auschwitz: History, Holocaust, Humanity.” Image via.

I think the main goal of a museum should be not to just to present neutral information, but to create an experience and make viewers question, not just look on neutrally. And for that, museums can’t be completely neutral in their choices and actions. Experience design has been a new focus in the museum community for a reason.

Maybe the standards of museums should be expanded to be “accurate, balanced, and questioning” instead of neutral. Or “effective and inclusive” like the Eastern State Penitentiary. If museums aren’t questioning their own content, they won’t progress. If museums focus on conclusions, on facts and history that has neatly tied up ends, then audiences don’t walk away with anything deep from the experience. What is there to think about, to take away when everything has been said?

Ash chose “Beyond Neutrality”by Sean Kelley as their third article.


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“Do Museums Need Objects?”

Posted on June 13th, 2018 by

By collections/exhibits intern Cara Bennet. To read more posts from JMM interns, past and present, click here.

As I’m working towards my Masters in Museum Studies this question continues to haunt me. In his book, history professor Steven Conn poses the question “do museums still need objects?” In our age of rapidly changing technology, virtual reality and high-tech interactives threaten to overshadow and replace documents and artifacts in museums. Museums have come a long way from their early days of displaying “cabinets of curiosities.” Museums today place a much greater emphasis on education and visitor experiences which benefit from incorporating a variety of methods for conveying information, not just objects. While many museums have begun to fill their galleries with touch screens, photo booths, virtual reality experiences, and interactive stations, I strongly believe that museums still need objects.

Objects are powerful. Objects connect us to our past. Objects have witnessed history. Objects are symbolic. Objects are iconic. Objects are meaningful. Objects speak to us on a level that words cannot. Anyone who has ever visited a museum can remember a particular object or objects that truly resonated with them. An object that struck them for one reason or another and stuck with them over the years.

One of the first objects to give me this feeling was the Watergate door at the Newseum. I know it sounds really weird, especially because I wasn’t particularly interested in political history, Nixon, or the Watergate scandal at the time. I remember standing in front of the door and being inexplicably awestruck. I turned to my dad and said “Wow! That’s actually THE door?” I had remembered reading about Watergate in my history class and it suddenly hit me that I was standing in front of an object that played a role in a significant moment in U.S. history.

“Wow! That’s actually THE door?” Image via.

Another object that holds a special place in my heart is Owney the dog at the National Postal Museum. This is another tough one to explain to people. Yeah…my favorite museum object is a taxidermied dog. While he was alive, Owney, a scruffy mutt who liked the scent of mailbags, became the Railway Mail Service’s unofficial mascot and good luck charm once he started following the mailbags onto mail wagons and mail trains. Owney traveled all over the country and even the world. Mail clerks recorded his trips by adding medals and tags to his collar signifying each new place he visited. After Owney died, mail clerks raised money to have him preserved to memorialize him and commemorate his service. While I feel weird about taxidermy, I absolutely love this dog and his story.

Whenever I’m near the Postal Museum I’ll run in just to say hi to my pal Owney. Image via.

While I’m only a week and a half into my internship here at the JMM I’ve already had the opportunity to browse our collections database. I am thrilled by the variety of objects I’ve seen. As I continue to explore our collections I’m patiently waiting to stumble upon “my” object. The one that speaks to me. The one that will stick with me.

Do you think museums need objects? Do you have a certain object that has really resonated with you? Tell us about it!

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