Graham Goes to MAAM!

Posted on October 29th, 2015 by

Building Communities: MAAM 2015

Building Communities: MAAM 2015

Last week I went to the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums annual conference in Philadelphia. The theme of the conference was “Embracing Diversity In All We Do.” It was fitting that it was held in the historic center. A plaque around the corner from the conference hotel stated that it was in Philadelphia where Quakers, Jews, Catholics and Protestants “experienced the difficulties and discovered the possibilities of fruitful coexistence that American democracy was to offer.” The plaue also stated that diversity is still evident in the Old Philadelphia Congregations, a consortium of historic churchs and sygogogues that are working together to broaden interfaith understanding and celebrate Philadelphia’s inique contribution to religious freedom in America.  Within steps from the conference hotel, I also discovered Mikveh Israel, which is Philadelphia’s oldest Jewish congregation and dates from the 1740s. In front of the synagogue stood a statue to Commodore Uriah Phillips Levy who was the first Jewish U.S. Navy Commodore serving during the Civil War.

Mikveh Israel and Uriah Levy

Mikveh Israel and Uriah Levy

As a way of gaining admission to the conference, I volunteered in the morning assisting with set up and handing out of session evaluations. This was also a good chance for me to network with other museum professionals. I was glad to run into several former employees of the Jewish Museum of Maryland, including one intern, Falicia Eddy who is now back in graduate school. The first session I sent to was on developing programs to bridge the gap between museums and individuals with cognitive, intellectual and sensory processing disabilities. I came away with some ideas which I hope to implement at the Jewish Museum. I also went to a session on diversity, where the highlight for me was hearing from Melissa Yaverbaum, the Executive Director of the Council of American Jewish Museums. I was also fascinated to hear from Eastern State Penitentiary about how they have diversified their staff by hiring former prisioners as front line staff and tour guides. 

MAAM conference session

MAAM conference session

Between sessions, I walked a few blocks over to visit the National Constitution Center to look at their new exhibit titled “Speaking Out for Equality: The Constitution, Gay Rights, and the Supreme Court” as I felt that this supplemented nicely the theme of the conference. I concluded the day with a session focusing on social justice in museums and how museums have the potential to become centers of gravity for discussions around civic unrest and human rights. I left inspired by some of the efforts other institutions are making to diversify their audiences, programming, exhibits, and staff, but also committed to improving our Museum.

GrahamA blog post by Graham Humphrey, Visitor Services Coordinator. To read more posts by Graham click HERE.

 

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The American Society of Human Genetics Comes to Town!

Posted on October 16th, 2015 by

Baltimore’s downtown was filled with more doctors than usual last week, as the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) held its annual meeting at the Convention Center. Though I’m not a real doctor, I dropped in to do some on-the-ground research for the “laboratory” section of the JMM’s upcoming exhibit, Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews and Medicine in America. Most of the attendees were laboratory scientists who study the genome. Some look for markers of future illness, while others use genes to piece together the history of human populations, both topics that we’ll touch on in the exhibit.

Alicia poses with the conference catalog.

Alicia poses with the conference catalog.

Translating basic scientific research into medical applications used to be a slow process, but in genetics it’s become almost instantaneous: studies reveal a gene linked to a disease, and screening providers add the new marker to their massive and growing catalogues of potential maladies. On the surface this seems like a great development, but medicine is still figuring out how to understand and act on genetic risk.

Part of the ASHG meeting was an enormous expo of genetic technology companies, from big names like Affymetrix to garage start-ups. Roaming the booths to collect contemporary genetics ephemera, I was intrigued by the variety of services on offer. There’s big money in biotech, but who’s making sure that these innovations actually help patients?

Conference swag: Everyone loves an assertive pin.

Conference swag: Everyone loves an assertive pin.

The ASHG also includes genetic counselors and bioethicists whose job it is to integrate new technologies into medical practice with respect to patients’ rights and social values. I spoke with one clinician, Dr. Sophia Hufnagel, who specializes in pediatric genetics; she works with children and their families to make sure that they understand and consent to testing, and helps them interpret the results.  Her research explores how young people feel about the ethical questions that their elders sometimes try to protect them from.

The teenagers who Dr. Hufnagel surveyed didn’t want to be shielded from the results of genetic testing (at least in a hypothetical scenario). Many said that knowledge of an inherited risk “would help them plan for the future,” or even lead to scientific research that might produce better treatment. Hufnagel observed that many adolescents “have adequate decision-making capacities” and could be granted more agency in their own medical treatment. From a clinical perspective, though, it’s impossible to make hard-and-fast rules. “I’m a huge advocate for partnership” with patients and families, Hufnagel explained. “Everything has to be case-by-case.”

Conference Swag: Cute mascots, or, the mole who collects and stabilizes your biological samples.

Conference Swag: Cute mascots, or, the mole who collects and stabilizes your biological samples.

This notion of “partnership” kept popping up in my perambulations through the convention center. Interestingly, it got lots of play in the technology expo, where company reps described their approach as “partnering” with physicians, patients, and genetic counselors. This seemed to reflect the professional norms of bioethics that Hufnagel described. At the same time, there’s a different logic at work for corporations that sell genetic testing services. Their profit and competitive advantage comes, in part, from creating the desire to know everything one possibly can rather than protecting “the right not to know” that Hufnagel carefully defends for her patients. This desire plays on popular perceptions of scientific authority and genetic determinism that don’t capture the complexity and uncertainty of current medical genetics.

This new industry is still forming – the FDA intervened in 2013 to halt direct-to-consumer (DTC) sales of medical genetic tests by the company 23andMe, mandating that physicians request such testing. Just this year, the agency changed course and approved 23andMe’s DTC test for Bloom Syndrome, opening the gates for companies to market over-the-counter screening products for a wide range of diseases. FDA administrator Alberto Gutierrez said that Americans should have “direct access to their personal genetic information… [which] supports innovation and will ultimately benefit consumers.” I met a lot of people who will benefit from this ruling, prowling among pipette displays and novelty pens at the ASHG expo. But the implications for consumers seem far more ambiguous.

Conference Swag: Genetic testing companies like this one provide preimplantation genetic screening of human embryos, plus humorous stress balls to help you cope with the dystopian future.

Conference Swag: Genetic testing companies like this one provide preimplantation genetic screening of human embryos, plus humorous stress balls to help you cope with the dystopian future.

As part of our preparations for Beyond Chicken Soup, I and curator Karen Falk have been sketching out interactive ethical scenarios for museum visitors rather like the one that Dr. Hufnagel posed to her study subjects: would you want to know the results of a genetic test if it could reveal an untreatable condition in your future?  The goal isn’t to get a “right” answer, but rather, as Hufnagel underscored, to reflect on your personal priorities: what level of knowledge would you feel comfortable with? Hufnagel’s work brings out an important dimension to these questions: when would you want to know? “The big worry [with teens],” she explains, “is that they can’t unknow it – they have that knowledge for the rest of their life.”

Conference Swag: Chocolate with a candy shell promotes "innovation in clinical and process data management."

Conference Swag: Chocolate with a candy shell promotes “innovation in clinical and process data management.”

Questions of how well people understand risk, how much they want to know, and what technology can really tell us will only get more complicated as the biotech industry flexes its muscle and scientists burrow deeper into the genome. Look out for the genetics section of Beyond Chicken Soup, where we explore the history of genetic screening in the Jewish community and the directions it’s taking today.

Alicia PuglionesiA blog post by Assistant Curator Dr. Alicia Puglionesi. To read more posts about our Beyond Chicken Soup exhibit click HERE.

 

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Another Report from Atlanta

Posted on May 13th, 2015 by

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be able to attend the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) conference in Atlanta, Georgia. Along with several thousand other museum curators, educators, administrators, registrars, developers, and – of course – collections  managers, I enjoyed four days of camaraderie, discussion, ideas, and food both mediocre (sorry, official conference hotel’s catering) and excellent (thank you, Mary Mac’s Tea Room). Atlanta inaugurated a city-wide Museum Week to coincide with the conference, and many local venues and organizations sent their ‘mascots’ to the Georgia World Congress Center to welcome the attendees.

I’m not personally a fan of costumed mascots, but I couldn’t resist posing with Zhu Zhu from Zoo Atlanta.

I’m not personally a fan of costumed mascots, but I couldn’t resist posing with Zhu Zhu from Zoo Atlanta.

There are many museum conferences to attend each year, from local to national to international. Among those options, AAM positions itself as one of the ‘big ones,’ and indeed many of the session topics relate to the concerns of extremely large, influential, and well-known institutions. However, in recent years they’ve made a push to serve museums on the other end of the scale. That gives those of us with smaller staffs and budgets a chance to meet with our cohorts from across the country, discuss topics relevant to our needs, gather info about current trends, and learn useful tips on applying those trends that we can steal borrow from our fellows. There is a certain chip-on-our-shoulders attitude common to small-to-mid-size museum employees at a gathering like this one; in one session, geared toward historical societies and similarly not-exactly-the-Met museums, a presenter unwisely said: “Well, we only have 15 full-time staff.”  The audience did not feel her pain. (It was a very useful session, though.)

Conferences are a great chance to catch up with old friends, network with new ones, buy topical books at a discount, and gather as much information, contacts, and swag from the Expo Hall as you can….

The accidental theme of the only photos I took at the conference: Bears. This fine fellow was in the Expo Hall.

The accidental theme of the only photos I took at the conference: Bears. This fine fellow was in the Expo Hall.

…Oh, and attend sessions, right! The actual point of the conference! I went to lots of sessions about artifact and archival collections, of course, with themes ranging from the philosophical to the practical. In keeping with the conference’s theme, “The Social Value of Museums: Inspiring Change,” the keynote speaker, Dr. Johnetta Betsch Cole, roused the crowd with her call to action: Broadening the diversity of museums’ content, audiences, boards, and staff.  And, on the morning of Tuesday, April 28th – after a Monday evening spent watching the news as events unfolded back in Baltimore – a packed meeting room discussed the lessons learned by the Missouri History Center in the wake of Ferguson, and the ways in which museums in Baltimore and other cities can respond to and reflect on their communities’ needs.

As always, I returned from the conference with a bag full of notes, brochures, books, free pens, and far too many new ideas to implement all at once. The challenge is to maintain that enthusiastic “we can do it!” impetus in the face of the day-to-day realities of museum work.  But I’m so glad to be working in a museum like the JMM, an organization that welcomes those ideas, encourages that enthusiasm, and is ready to respond positively and proactively to the Maryland community.

JoannaA blog post by Collections Manager Joanna Church. To read more posts from Joanna click HERE.

 

 

 

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