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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.


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The Power of Museums

Posted on March 7th, 2018 by

This month’s edition of Performance Counts comes to us from Deputy Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.

I was recently reminded of the power of museums.

On February 26 and 27, several colleagues and I travelled the 40 miles south to Washington DC for the convening of the annual conference of the Council of American Jewish Museums. On Monday morning, the keynote address was from Kinshasha Holman Conwill, Deputy Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Ms. Conwill’s address was at the same time casual and compelling. She went off script long enough to joke with her audience about Black Panther and stayed on message consistently enough to deliver quotations verbatim. She invoked prophets—biblical and modern—from Isaiah to Martin Luther King Jr., Amos to Abraham Joshua Heschel. She recommended books and movies and articles. She shared successes of her museum.

But it was a phrase all her own that gave me pause. I jotted it down in my notebook: “acts of terror and fear connect Jews and Blacks in America.”

In a story to punctuate acts of terror and fear, she described the demoralizing experience of a noose being found in the galleries at the NMAAHC, in the same general time-period as the nation watched white supremacists in Charlottesville chant “Jews will not replace us” while marching with tiki torches.

As one, those assembled held our breath as we shook our heads in dismay. She told us about where and how the noose was found, and what the response was from her staff. And then she went on to relate the feeling of watching museum colleagues—from the US Holocaust Memorial and Museum, the Museum of National History, Air and Space, American History, National Gallery, and others, march up the National Mall to stand in solidarity with her and her colleagues.

She described the warmth of the day and the warmth of her heart knowing that museums exist, in part, to stand against the kind of cowardice that would leave a symbol of fear and violence in a public space. I could feel myself and my fellow audience members exhale our held breath. The reality of the noose was still with us, but our response, as museum professionals and as human beings, restored hope.

The story was real for me. It evoked strong emotion.

It was nothing compared to what I experienced the next day.

On Tuesday, I started my day at the US Holocaust Memorial and Museum. 

On an abbreviated docent-led tour of the Museum, I was struck by the presentation of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, when thousands of Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues were destroyed. The USHMM displays the remnants of a stained glass window from a synagogue destroyed on Kristallnacht along with large scale before and after photos of the sanctuary.* I was struck by the well of emotion the object invoked in me.

Later in the day, I attended Ms. Cornwill’s museum, the National Museum of African American Culture and History. 

In the section about the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, I made a point to look closely at the photos of the four girls who were lost, and then as I turned a corner, I was confronted once again by broken stained glass. The NMAAHC displays fragments of a window destroyed by the bomb that took those four children’s lives.**

Acts of terror and fear connect Jews and Blacks in America.

A small shudder ran up my spine. If Kinshasha Cornwill’s words gave me pause, these two stained glass windows, exhibited in museums on the same National Mall, made it real. In that shudder, I was reminded of the truth of the proposition of museums: things matter; experience is not the same as information.

In that shudder, I was strengthened in the hope and the conviction that museums can be a part of the change I want to see in the world.

More and more, our museum colleagues are realizing that though what we do is not partisan, it is political. Our visitors are not just learning information for their own use and edification. They are living experiences that, if we do it right, help them to become better human beings. With a nod to our colleagues at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, if we do it right, our visitors will not be bystanders but upstanders. I look forward to continuing to walk this path at JMM.


*From the USHMM: “The shattered stained glass windows of the Zerrennerstrasse synagogue after its destruction on Kristallnacht.” More info here.

**From the NMAAHC: “Stained glass from the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was donated by our colleagues Ann Jimerson (1963 Kids in Birmingham) and Joan Trumpauer Mulholland (SNCC veteran). Learn more here.”

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

How Do I Connect?

Posted on March 1st, 2018 by

A blog post by Education Director Ilene Dackman-Alon. To read more posts by Ilene click HERE.

This week, I, along with a few staff members travelled back and forth to Washington D.C. to attend the CAJM (Council for American Jewish Museums) 2018 Annual Conference. The conference was a three-day event, designed to give professionals working in Jewish cultural organizations and institutions the opportunity to learn best practices in the museum field, visit museums and meet and schmooze with new and old friends. The conference is still fresh in my brain, so I wanted to share some thoughts. One of the main takeaways that I like to think about at conferences is: how do I connect with the speakers and places that we visit?

Day One started off with a downtown walking tour led by our friends from the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington. We learned about the first synagogue building built in 1876 in our Nation’s Capital, Adas Israel; and learned about the congregation’s eventual move to the suburbs.

The original building is currently on stilts in the middle of a busy intersection in downtown DC; waiting to go on its final journey to the future campus of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.

After the walking tour, we went to where the conference was being held inside Adas Israel’s second synagogue building, now known as Sixth & I. The building has gone through numerous transformations from a Conservative synagogue, an African Methodist Episcopal Church to a hub for both synagogue and community space.

Sixth & I has a reputation in that they provide a space for impactful and provocative programs spanning different Jewish cultural traditions.

I found the history of the building to be similar to the history of the Lloyd Street Synagogue.

I was happy to see so many old friends and colleagues at CAJM – and at one point I counted 10 people that I knew that had an association with the JMM at some point during their professional careers.

Day Two was held at The Wilson Center where the keynote speaker was Kinshasha Holman Conwill, Deputy Director of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. She spoke eloquently about our responsibilities as museum professionals as we tell the story of our culture and heritage.

She quoted Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement.” How is that for a takeaway!

I participated in Talking Circles on specific topics of Israel and Audience Engagement. These activities allowed us to share what we do in our instituitions and hopefully gives other inspiration and ideas to take back to their own institutions.

Day Three was held at the USHMM – United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The day started off with a guided tour of the museum, something that I had never done before. I have been to the museum many times but always went through the galleries by myself. As we walked along the corridors with the docent, I looked down and I noticed the cobblestones and then I read a sign that indicated that the stones were part of the cobblestones of the streets inside the Warsaw Ghetto. 

I literally had chills going down my spine.

Our final visit was to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

I was amazed at the beauty of the building on the outside.

I was so excited to go inside and was blown away by the exhibits and the information presented on the inside.  My experience inside those walls was incredible. I found myself going through waves of emotions, and finding many commonalities in our shared experiences, both the Jewish and the African American experience.

Our last stop was the museum shop, and once again, I found another connection to our shared experiences.

When our son Guy was a baby, he received a book called More, More, More by Vera B. Williams and there is a short chapter in the book called Little Guy.

I was transported back to reading the book to our son when he was a baby, and how 23 years later he has grown to be such an incredible person. I was very happy that I found this small piece of my own story inside the museum.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

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