Posted on March 24th, 2017 by Rachel
Have you noticed our obsession with top ten lists? Our tendency to pay attention to something when it’s the first, or the newest, or the largest?
Museums have a long pedigree in displaying the rare and exceptional, but there is an inherent distortion of history in an exclusive focus on the “most important.” In the 21st century, in an era of shared authority between visitor and curator, we need to re-learn the art of elevating the ordinary – of making the lives of everyday folks as compelling as the extraordinary.
On the recent trip to the Council of American Jewish Museums conference in Massachusetts, I found two institutions doing just that. Neither would describe itself as a “museum” per se, but both are worthy of a visit.
Entering Vilna Shul
The first was the Vilna Shul in Boston. Built in 1919, the Vilna Shul (or as its original sign says in a Boston accent – the “Vilner Congregation”) is not the oldest, nor the largest, nor the most beautiful religious space by any stretch of the imagination. It is rather the last remaining synagogue of the great wave of Eastern European migration to Boston’s West End (out of twenty or more than once were there). Like our own Lloyd Street Synagogue the Vilna Shul was rescued from a city plan to tear it down and put in a parking lot.
Vilna’s stained glass window
The architecture is a pastiche – a little Georgian, a little Romanesque, a little Eastern European folk. It’s most notable feature is its huge stained glass Star of David, unambiguously facing the street. The interior has some elements in common with LSS, including chandeliers purchased from a neighboring church. But also some things I would never associate with a synagogue of this period – huge skylights, and in lieu of a balcony, a women’s section set up like a raked theater. The Shul has literally pealed back the layers of paint to reveal its historic stenciling.
There is no golden age of the Vilna Shul. As our guide pointed out, even by the time this was built, the Jewish community had begun to move elsewhere. Yet this humble congregation offers a glimpse into Jewish immigrant life that is every bit as important and interesting as the most magnificent temple designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
The Yiddish Book Center
The second non-museum on my “must visit” list is the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst. Walking up to the building, the architecture already builds expectations – after all, how many American buildings are designed to resemble a shtetl? The Yiddish Book Center takes “humble” to a whole new level… it’s logo is a goat, the same goat that we celebrate in Had Gadya each Passover, the gentle goat of the Yiddish lullaby Oyfn Pripetchik. The exhibits do not exist in great galleries but rather mostly meander through the stacks of thousands of books.
Sharing one of the Yiddish newspapers in the collection.
The exhibits and tours don’t try to claim that Yiddish is the most influential language – noting that only 39,000 books were printed in Yiddish in the century in which Yiddish books were being printed. Instead the focus is on the history embedded in the language. A Yiddish linotype machine and cases of type are used to illustrate the intersection of technology and language. A giant story book encasing a video screen connects themes in Yiddish literature to contemporary movies and plays.
Check out that address
Perhaps most intriguing they have a crate on display. There is nothing terribly special about the crate except the shipped-from address. The shipped-from address is Zimbabwe and suddenly the crate becomes a vehicle for telling the incredible story of books that escaped with their owner from Lithuania to Shanghai before the Holocaust and from Shanghai to Zimbabwe after WWII and from Zimbabwe to Amherst, MA in the 1990s (with duplicates returned to the Jewish community in Lithuania). An otherwise ordinary crate turns into a ride through modern Jewish history.
What a fun “madlibs” style interactive!
It’s definitely worth the extra mile if you find yourself in New England. If it provides an incentive, know that it is on my “top ten” list of Jewish sites to visit, and I say that in all humility.
Blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.
Posted on March 16th, 2015 by Rachel
I was delighted to have the opportunity to take part in this year’s Council of American Jewish Museums (CAJM) conference taking place March 8-10 in San Francisco. Attended by more than 100 Jewish museum professionals from all over the US, Canada and Europe, this year’s conference theme, Open Source: Jewish Museums and Collaborative Culture was particularly appropriate for its setting in the Bay Area.
CAJM Conference 2015
What a pleasure it was to leave gray, bleak and snowy Baltimore and to emerge from the BART station on Mission Street in San Francisco to a beautiful sunny day. Things only got better from there. Our first day was spent at The Contemporary Jewish Museum, one of our conference hosts.
exterior, The Contemporary Jewish Museum
Designed by Daniel Libeskind, the Museum’s design incorporates Jewish symbols and is a striking presence in the heart of a bustling commercial and cultural district. (Visit www.thecjm.org/about/building to learn more about the building)
The CJM provides many wonderful opportunities for community engagement. I was drawn to its warm and welcoming education center featuring an abundance of creative hands-on activity stations that encourage exploration.
The conference kicked off with a lively keynote address by Nina Simon, executive director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. Simon is known for her audience-centered approach to museum design and programming and she challenged CAJM participants to remove barriers of access that often prevent people from visiting their institutions. Her talk was one of the highlights of the conference as she presented a model for museums as participatory and experimental sites that engage in social bridging by bringing together people of different backgrounds. (You can read more about Simon’s groundbreaking views about the role of museums in her Museum 2.0 blog.)
One of my favorite aspects of CAJM conferences is the opportunity to visit other museums and San Francisco did not disappoint. Kudos to conference organizers for casting off the tradition of using buses as the primary mode of transportation and instead relying on public transportation. It was quite a feat that they managed to successfully herd dozens of conferees up and down subway platforms and onto the appropriate trains!
Sites visited included the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life where we had the chance to view Gourmet Ghettos: Modern Food Rituals, the California Historical Society and the Oakland Museum of California. Visiting the recently restored core exhibition galleries of art and history at the Oakland Museum provided inspiration for thinking about the concept of core exhibits as did a related session held that afternoon, “Getting to the Core: Options and Models”. The Museum’s executive director, Lori Fogarty, talked about the history of the project as well as its development process that actively included feedback from a wide range of community members.
A display exploring the gold rush from the new core exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California
One of my favorite labels ever marked the entrance to the art gallery explaining to visitors the symbols on works of art and asking that they refrain from licking the paintings!
By the end of the conference on Tuesday afternoon, I was simultaneously exhausted and energized and looking forward to sharing what I learned with my JMM colleagues.
Learn more about the conference HERE.
A blog post by Assistant Director Deborah Cardin. To read more posts from Deborah click HERE.
Posted on January 10th, 2014 by Rachel
WE ARE NOT ALONE
At last count the Council of American Jewish Museums (CAJM) had 82 members, from the Alaska Jewish Museum and Cultural Center in Anchorage to the Zimmer Children’s Museum in Los Angeles. CAJM includes a handful of accredited history and art museum, like the Jewish Museum of Maryland, and dozens of institutions that in some ways share characteristics with museums as centers for culture in their respective communities. These include galleries at JCCs, Holocaust museums and centers, synagogue museums, and community archives. CAJM aims to strengthen the field of Jewish museums by serving as a central body for information exchange, professional development, and advocacy.
JMM has played an important role in the development of CAJM for more than two decades. Today, Deborah Cardin serves as Vice Chair of the organization. The Chair of CAJM is former JMM curator, Melissa Martens Yaverbaum and the Treasurer of CAJM is Avi Decter. While every institution that belongs to CAJM has a unique mission and a distinctive audience, the opportunity for sharing ideas in this cultural community remains very valuable to us.
Each year CAJM holds an annual conference in some part of the United States bringing together its diverse body of professionals. This year the organization is taking a year off from the usual museum conference format to hold what we are calling a “Retreat/Forward” at the Bon Secours Retreat and Conference Center, here in Marriottsville, MD from March 23 to 25. Though it is not quite Baltimore, JMM is serving as the official host institution (with Marvin Pinkert taking a leadership role as host chair). Since the “Retreat/Forward” is open to staff, trustees and Museum volunteers (that is, most of you who receive the Performance Counts newsletter), we thought we would share the link to the event with all of you.
The brochure is located HERE.
The program will feature:
• Cutting-edge thinkers and practitioners on participatory culture and emergent learning trends
• Frank discussions about audience expectations, civic engagement, and changing community structures
• Workshops, charettes, and small group discussions that will make the retreat an engaging, active experience for all participants
• A dance demonstration and group exercise by MacArthur Fellow Liz Lerman, founder of Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, and a lively talk, “From Holy Land to Graceland,” by former Walters Art Museum Director Gary Vikan
• Remarks from Ford W. Bell, President of the American Alliance of Museums; Marsha Semmel, former Acting Director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services; and Steven M. Cohen, advisor to the recent Pew Research Center study, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans”
Single day registration as well as full conference registration are available at the website.
STILL MORE SHARING
Not all of our collaborations with other Jewish museums happen at conferences. Next month we celebrate the role of Lincoln and the Jews in the Civil War. In addition to Passages Through the Fire: Jews and the Civil War, we will be using our orientation plaza to display Jewish Life in Mr. Lincoln’s City, an exhibit developed by the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington.
Check out our upcoming February programs HERE.
We will share exhibits and we will also “exchange” directors. Laura Apelbaum, Executive Director of JHSGW will speak on Lincoln at JMM on the afternoon of February 9th and she is bringing a tour group from her Board, staff and volunteers with her. Ten days later, Marvin Pinkert will head down to the JHSGW’s Lillian and Albert Small Jewish Museum to give his final presentation on Jews and the Civil War.
You may have noticed that we now carry news about the Small Museum to our membership through Museum Matters and Laura distributes information about upcoming programs at JMM. It’s just one of the ways that it is better not to be alone.