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CAJM Conference 2020: Essential Conversations

Posted on March 5th, 2020 by

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

As a part of our professional development JMM staff sometimes attend professional conferences. These convenings of Museum professionals are a great way to learn from (or sometimes kvetch with) our colleagues who face similar challenges at other cultural institutions around the country–or the world. Last week, I was fortunate enough to represent JMM at the annual conference of the Council of American Jewish Museums.

The conference, in Dallas, TX, opened at the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum. This brand-new venue (opened in November 2019) made real the notion of Upstanders that we at JMM have been experimenting with in recent months. 

The conference had some sessions that might have been on the program at any museum conference–e,g, “Facing Difficult Histories” or “Changing Missions, Changing Institutions”–and others that were decidedly Jewish in nature–”Judaism in Jewish Museums” and “Exploring Israel.” 

I attended many sessions, all of which were fascinating and valuable. For the purposes of this report, I’ll focus on a few highlights.

In the opening plenary, a panel of museum professionals and academics – from the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum, Eastern State Penitentiary, American Jewish Historical Society, American Jewish World Service, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun (NY), and University of Wisconsin, Madison – addressed the guiding question as to what has changed in the past few years. I heard a lot of fascinating observations from these thinkers.

Some really resonated, for instance, when Ruth Messinger noted that she sees a tendency among American Jewish audiences to believe that Jewish stories are somehow different from others’ stories – to such an extent that they cannot be compared at all. Others were news to me – the college professor in the group talked about seeing in his students an anxiety caused by the resurgence of antisemitism coupled with an uncertainty among these young people about their Jewish identity. As the professor put it, “these students don’t know how to be Jewish in their lives, values, or social circles.”

As the conversation in the plenary turned toward immigration and the role Jewish museums have in the debate around immigration, I was fascinated to learn that Emma Lazarus – the creator of the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” was, in fact, a fifth generation American. I was struck by the assertion that the similarity of Jewish immigration stories to today’s stories are only powerful if we know the older stories. (This truth felt like an important response to Messinger’s earlier point about Jewish audiences believing in the uniqueness of their own stories.) The panel noted the historic familiarity in the distinction between “old” and “new” immigrants. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the distinction was often the crux of the division between acculturated, central European Jews and the newer arrivals from eastern Europe. Today, this revived distinction between old and new immigrants is often weaponized against contemporary immigrants especially from south and central America – e.g. the way you sometimes hear in the Jewish community about how “when we immigrated here, we came the ‘right’ way,” regardless of the reality of the actual stories of the speaker’s immigrant ancestors.

In one of the most memorable sessions of my conference experience, the curator from The Sixth Floor Museum (the museum dedicated to JFK’s assassination), a social psychologist, and Mark Zaid, known most recently as the lawyer for the impeachment whistleblower, were on a panel about conspiracy theories, moderated by a journalist from Tablet magazine. In this session, I was introduced to the notion that antisemitism in the 21st century is a kind of a conspiracy theory. This idea notes that many people in today’s world feel threatened by forces outside their control. The social psychologist noted that when people feel threatened, it can amplify the capacity to turn difference into “otherness” and turn the other into a menacing threat.

One of the most fascinating pieces of data in this session for the museum professional came from the psychologist who spoke about evaluation work done with visitors studying museumgoers’ reactions to difficult exhibits, for instance, those about the Holocaust. The psychologist reported that the post-exhibit experiences of museumgoers fell into three categories. Category 1 were the minority, comprising about 10% of total visitors. These visitors were open-minded. They came away from the exhibit moved by what they’d seen and open to the possibility that, if faced with the same situation as those they’d learned about, they might have the capacity to make the same horrible choices. Category 2, about half of the remaining visitors, or 45%, are ambivalent. They are moved by what they saw, but also psychologically move away from what they saw, putting distance between themselves and the content, assuring themselves it could never happen to them. The remaining 45% fall into category 3: closed responses who are not open to the messages of the exhibit at all. These visitors move into a state of denial.

Since one of the key conspiracy theories many Jewish museums work hard to debunk is Holocaust denial, this piece of data feels particularly problematic for us. How do we do our job of exposing the lie of Holocaust denial when our very exhibits can psychologically push about half of our visitors into a state of denial? The session I attended didn’t answer that question for me, but it has stayed on my mind in the days since I heard it. I have been thinking about the idea of the continuum that suggests that as we move out of psychological comfort, we are pushed into stretch zones, and if pushed too far, enter a panic zone. When museums want our visitors to grow, we have to aim for the stretch zone. If we push our visitors into panic, we may have the exact opposite effect of the one we want.

As I flew home to Baltimore from the conference, I realized I had as many questions as I had when I left, though not the same questions. I am excited to bring those questions to my colleagues and to our JMM family.

Questions like:

How do we ensure we are living our values across all aspects of the Museum?

Do we need to review our collections policy vis-à-vis our new mission statement?

What about our education priorities?

How do we measure the effect we have in the world, and how do we hold ourselves accountable for those measures?

How do we ensure we are being true to the dual goalposts of financial stability and mission?

How do we keep all staff, board, and volunteers informed and accountable as we articulate and commit to our new mission, vision, and values?

These are not questions that will be easily answered, and they cannot be answered by one or even two people. I look forward to working through them – and all of the subsequent questions they create – with the JMM team.


Posted in jewish museum of maryland

Small, but Mighty – SMA Conference 2020

Posted on February 27th, 2020 by

From Visitor Services Coordinator Talia Makowsky. To read more posts from Talia, click here.


Some people spend their birthday celebrating with friends, having a nice dinner, or taking a trip. This year, I celebrated by attending the Small Museum Association Conference 2020, which took place in College Park, Maryland. And it was a wonderful birthday event! I attended lots of informative and interesting sessions and met many lovely people who are dedicated to their missions of learning, preserving, sharing, and making change in the world. Most inspirational to me was the sense of spirit the conference created, of all these folks coming together, and finding tangible techniques and lessons that they can take back to their sites, no matter how many staff, resources, or how much money they have available. All the people at this conference want to make their site or sites more accessible to guests, more inspiring, and find new ways to connect to their wider communities.

This all sounded very familiar to me, as we’re working to do the same thing here at JMM. Hearing others talk through their challenges, and problem-solve together, made me feel like I have chosen the right path professionally. I now have a new network of people to reach out to, when I need help solving my own problems at work. I hope to visit at least a few of the historical and educational sites represented by the other conference attendees, over the course of this year.

In the meantime, I’m still bursting with information and reviewing my notes from the conference. While I share this newfound inspiration with everyone at the Museum, I wanted to take this blog post to share some of the highlights of my time there.

As we shared in a social media post, the College Park Aviation Museum was generous enough to host the SMA Conference reception.

The conference really took off at the reception Sunday night.

The SMA Board President welcomed us to the conference and to the Aviation Museum, and we had a great time chatting with other and looking around. Though the Aviation Museum is a small museum, they have some amazing historic aircraft, which made for great photo opportunities. If you’re ever in College Park, I highly encourage a visit to the museum, which includes the grounds of the world’s oldest continuously operating airport.

Another highlight of the conference was the Monday night banquet, which I attended as a scholarship winner. Following the theme of the conference, “Honoring the 100th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage: Museums as Catalysts of Social Change,” people were encouraged to dress in 20’s-style clothing. These outfits ranged from flapper dresses to suffragette costumes, complete with signs declaring women’s right to vote.

Anyone wearing a costume could assemble for the annual costume contest! I’m going to make sure to bring my best finery next time.

The banquet was another opportunity to schmooze with fellow museum professionals, and I learned a lot about sites in New Jersey, New York City, and in Virginia, along with Maryland historical sites and museums. I’m incredibly thankful that I had the opportunity to attend as a scholarship winner, especially since all the winners got to know each other and we often sat near each other as solo attendees. The most amazing part of the banquet though was dessert.

Dessert was amazing as it looks!

Beyond the events and networking, the most important takeaway for me was the conversations around accessibility. The presenters who focused on this topic made the goal of creating accessible programs, exhibits, and experiences seem more attainable. The presenters provided a range of solutions, large and small, and emphasized why it’s so important to make our sites accessible, beyond the ADA requirements.

Multi-sensory mapping refers to looking at an exhibit space and figuring out where sensory experiences take place, such as light, sound, crowds, space, and more.

Every person who presented about accessibility mentioned that creating accessibility resources with just one group in mind, can help everyone who visits a site. Even if we’re thinking about a person in a wheelchair moving easily through a space, we’re also helping people who don’t like to feel crowded. Providing information through audio media helps those who are blind or have low vision, but also makes a more immersive experience. Having a quiet room to rest during a museum visit isn’t just important for those who can get overwhelmed with sensory experiences. It also helps the average visitor who just wants to sit before they explore the rest of the museum.

I’m most excited to find ways to help the visitors I meet every day to have a more enhanced and immersive experience. I hope that by doing so, they can better learn our stories, explore our history, and imagine a better future.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

Thank You MAAM!

Posted on October 24th, 2019 by

A blog post by Director of Learning and Visitor Engagement Ilene Dackman-Alon. To read more posts by Ilene click HERE.

Last week, I had the opportunity to travel north to the lovely Hudson Valley region to attend the annual conference of the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums (MAAM).  I am on the conference planning committee and I also serve on the MAAM Board as the representative for the State of Maryland.

The conference was held at the Thayer Hotel at West Point.

Upon my arrival, I dropped my things in my hotel room and walked up the street to the West Point Museum/US Army Center of Military History.  The Museum’s galleries have many displays relating to the history of the US army and its weapons and warfare. I learned that the Museum is the nation’s oldest federal museum and that the Thayer Hotel was named for Colonel and Brevet Brigadier General Sylvanus Thayer who was known as the “Father of West Point.”

Thayer was an early superintendent of the United States Military Academy and was an early advocate of science and civil engineering as part of the curriculum at the school.

One of the best things about the conference is having the opportunity to visit interesting and unique museums in the area.

I walked back to the hotel and met up with colleagues who were going to the Storm King Art Center. The place is beautiful and situated between two mountains on 500 acres of grounds.  It is breathtaking in so many ways when you see art and nature intersect.  The Museum has one of the largest collections of contemporary outdoor sculptures in the United States.

The sessions that I attended during the conference were very interesting and I loved learning about what other Museums are doing in the areas of programming and education.

I was particularly proud of our own Rachel Kassman who participated in a panel discussion about Balancing Social Marketing in Museums. Rachel did a fabulous job showcasing the JMM’s wonderful social marketing initiatives.  She was in great company with presenters from the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum and the Corning Museum of Glass.  The presentation that I connected with the most was one by Tamara Christian, President and COO of The International Spy Museum in DC.  Tamara spoke thoughtfully about the “The Culture of the Workplace” and shared her ideas about how to successfully change the culture of the workplace to be a more positive experience for all stakeholders.

One of the MAAM board members shared with me that she visited a unique Jewish historical site, called the Gomez Mill House and if possible, I should try and visit.  On the last day, I travelled north about 30 minutes to a town called Marlboro and found this little gem complete with a refurbished water wheel.

The Gomez Mill House touts itself as being The Oldest Jewish Dwelling in North America and tells the story of the six owners of the property.

Luis Moses Gomez, a Sephardic Jew and the son of a Jewish immigrant merchant, was one of one of the early Jewish families in colonial New York.  Gomez acquired about 3000 acres of land that was situated close to several American Indian trails and realized that this would be a good place for barter and trade. In 1714. he constructed a stone house to serve as both a trading post and fortress alongside a stream that was named Jews Creek. Gomez and his sons conducted business here for close to thirty years and Gomez later became the president of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in New York which was later named Congregation Sherith Israel.

My guide Rich was so knowledgeable about the building and shared with me so many interesting tidbits.  He also told wonderful stories of the other 5 families that used the original trading post and converted it to the present-day structure.   I loved learning about each of these families and of their contributions to the community and the region.

My two favorite stories in addition to the Gomez family was the story of Martha Gruening, a Jewish suffragist and civil rights activist, who bought the property to open a school.  I also learned that Arts and Crafts paper historian and artisan Dard Hunter built the mill in 1913 and later produced the world’s first one-man made books at the site.

Rich also shared with me that this beautiful chanukiah (ca 1840’s) (Hanukah menorah) was used at the White House Holiday Celebration in 1998 during the Clinton years.

I would recommend seeing this “gem” of a museum only second to the Jewish Museum of Maryland!


Posted in jewish museum of maryland

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