Exploring Next Narratives

Posted on March 25th, 2016 by

This year’s Council of American Jewish Museum’s (CAJM) annual conference took place in NY from March 20-22 and focused on the topic of “Next Narratives”. Conversation flowed surrounding the topic of storytelling with many thought provoking sessions devoted to exploring how Jewish museums can develop new more inclusive narratives through exhibitions, programs and outreach initiatives.

2016 CAJM Conference

2016 CAJM Conference

The conference lineup was impressive and featured artists, scholars, museum professionals and philanthropists. The opening plenary highlighted novel storytelling methods with presentations by Annie Polland of the Tenement Museum, author Bruce Feiler and artist and filmmaker, Tiffany Shlain. I was reminded again about just what a brilliant job the Tenement Museum does in telling stories about the immigrants who inhabited 97 Orchard Street and loved Annie’s endorsement of “messy storytelling” by training guides to learn how to give unscripted tours that incorporate participants’ stories. You can find out more about the Tenement Museum’s tours and programs at tenement.org.

Another thought provoking session, “The Ten-Foot Pole of Jewish Museums: Where is the Religious Narrative?” raised a rather provocative issue – are Jewish museums afraid to wrestle with religious content in meaningful ways? One of the panelists, Melanie Holcomb from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, shared how a beautiful musical installation that her staff created at the Cloisters enhanced visitor engagement with religious art. The discussion among participants following the panelists was particularly insightful.

Audience engagement through non-traditional means was emphasized in the final panel of the conference, “Audacious Space: Rethinking Gallery Engagement”.

Audience engagement through non-traditional means was emphasized in the final panel of the conference, “Audacious Space: Rethinking Gallery Engagement”.

Colleagues from The Contemporary Jewish Museum (San Francisco), The Jewish Museum (NY), the National Museum of American Jewish History (Philadelphia) and Museum Hack highlighted work that they have done to bring in new audiences through such means as providing contemporary artists opportunities to create installations based on their interpretation of collections and exhibitions (often displayed in unusual spaces). The Contemporary Jewish Museum has developed a popular series of 20-minute gallery chats that provide visitors with the chance to hear from a diverse group of speakers who have some connection to exhibition content. (Check out current offerings developed for the Bill Graham exhibit.)

Museum Hack, a tour company that is not affiliated with a museum, has a reputation for leading highly entertaining tours that are popular with millennials. This presentation was especially fun and audience members enjoyed participating in an activity creating stories of individuals portrayed in famous art portraits. For more about the irreverent approach that Museum Hack takes to developing its interactive tours with the tagline “This Isn’t Your Grandma’s Museum Tour” check out museumhack.com.

In addition to the valuable content gleaned from sessions, the CAJM conference also offers plenty of opportunities for networking with colleagues from across the country as well as from Canada, Europe and Israel. Taking advantage of the many amazing cultural venues in New York, attendees had the chance to view multiple exhibits, including Beit Hatfutsots’ exhibit Here Comes the Bride: [pdf] at Temple Emanue-el.

At the Jewish Museum we viewed an incredible exhibit displaying gowns, sketches and costumes by Isaac Mizrahi.

At the Jewish Museum we viewed an incredible exhibit displaying gowns, sketches and costumes by Isaac Mizrahi.

Center for Jewish History

Center for Jewish History

deborahA blog post by Deputy Director Deborah Cardin. To read more posts from Deborah click HERE.

 

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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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