Connecting Communities to Collections

Posted on December 18th, 2015 by

The JMM is a member of the Council of American Jewish Museums (CAJM), an organization of 80+ members dedicated to the collection and interpretation of Jewish history and culture. CAJM offers a variety of services to its members including professional development opportunities through national conventions and regional meetups. The organization also seeks to take a leading role in addressing issues of concern to its membership by providing guidance and support whenever possible.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to travel to New York for a CAJM sponsored workshop exploring the topic of connecting communities to collections. This was a follow up to a previous “Idea Lab” that took place last spring that opened the conversation and explored several different strategies for making museum collections more relevant and accessible for community members. Concepts discussed at the first gathering included “Next Narratives” (launching collecting initiatives that help reshape conventional narratives of Jewish history), “Audacious Hospitality” (creating a more inclusive environment through creative programming and collecting), and “Strategic Alliances” (as a means of more effectively leveraging limited resources). Another suggestion was raised to radically rethink collecting strategies that would enable museums to think more strategically about the types of artifacts that they accession.

The goal of the second in a series of ongoing conversations on this topic was to discuss these strategies (and others) in more depth. More than 25 cultural leaders (not just from Jewish museums) and funders attended the program which took place at the Center for Jewish History. The morning was spent laying out some of the challenges that Jewish museums face in making their collections accessible. Many institutions have large collections that are not well documented with limited storage space.

These photos reflect the fact that the JMM collections storage space is packed with artifacts. Finding space for new items – especially large framed artworks – is a challenge.

These photos reflect the fact that the JMM collections storage space is packed with artifacts.

collections storage

Finding space for new items – especially large framed artworks – is a challenge.

Furthermore, it is difficult finding the necessary funds to properly care for artifact preservation.

Focus turned to strategies for engaging young audiences through collections and it was suggested that museums explore successful initiatives that have been employed to encourage millennial participation in Jewish culture and tradition such as Reboot: www.rebooters.net and Moishe House: www.moishehouse.org/houses/baltimore.

New models for engaging audiences with collections were suggested such as lending artifacts that are seldom used to other community organizations like synagogues for display and possible use or working with organizations like Museum Hack to develop creative tours and programs: https://museumhack.com/. Interest was also expressed in developing partnerships with artists to help reinvigorate collections by inviting them to explore artifacts in storage and to create art installations based on their interpretation of objects. Examples of successful projects that make use of contemporary artists include the Israel Museum: http://www.jerusalemseason.com/en/content/event/contact-point.

While the JMM does not have an especially large collection of Judaica, for many Jewish museums, Jewish ritual objects comprise a significant part of their collections. One recommendation is to think about more creative ways of displaying Judaica so visitors can better understand their role in ritual.

While the JMM does not have an especially large collection of Judaica, for many Jewish museums, Jewish ritual objects comprise a significant part of their collections. One recommendation is to think about more creative ways of displaying Judaica so visitors can better understand their role in ritual.

One idea for new types of partnerships is for Jewish museums to work with non-Jewish organizations to help them more fully interpret Jewish content in their collections. Jewish funders are often more interested in supporting work at non-Jewish institutions because of the perception that it will be viewed by a larger more diverse audiences.

In the afternoon, we split up and worked in small groups to tackle specific issues and to come up with a concrete proposal for what CAJM might do to help provide solutions. My group was tasked with exploring how to develop trust between museum staff who wants to protect collections and often is concerned about possible infringements on its role as collections’ guardians and those who want to open up access to collections in new ways. We suggested that CAJM could develop a set of guidelines that would help its members reexamine collections policies as well as share stories of successful models for connecting collections to community. Another idea is for CAJM to provide small grants to organizations to encourage innovation in this area. We also explored the possibility of convening a small group of museums to examine where the gaps are in collections – i.e. do our collections represent the current faces of our Jewish communities?

All in all, the day was productive with lots of interesting conversation surrounding the topic of collections and audience engagement.

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

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Performance Counts: Looking Ahead

Posted on December 11th, 2015 by

Today’s Performance Counts looks ahead.  JMM plans its exhibits (both rented and JMM originals) on a two to three year rolling schedule.  So while you are enjoying Paul Simon: Words and Music this month we have already locked in our offerings well after 2016’s Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews and Medicine in America. With just one traveling exhibit gallery we try to represent a range of important topics in the Jewish experience – from popular culture to communal tragedies.  I have asked Deborah to offer a preview of an important upcoming project.

~Marvin

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In the spring of 2017 we are designing a project that is composed of multiple elements and multiple perspectives.  Remembering Auschwitz is comprised of two exhibits, a commemorative art installation and a program series.  Our object is to take an international story, well known in its outline, and to bring new focus to the details – by looking at the lives of individuals before, during and after the Holocaust.  The project is expected to run from March 5-May 29, 2017, overlapping with the annual Yom HaShoah and 75 years after the camp at Auschwitz became the launching ground for Hitler’s “Final Solution”.

The Feldman gallery will feature two very different exhibits looking at two periods of time A Town Known As Auschwitz: The Life and Death of a Jewish Community comes from the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. It explores the history of the Polish and Jewish community that eventually became the site of the notorious camp.  The town of Oświęcim—today in Poland—has been known by different names, in different languages, at different times. Though it has a long and varied history prior to World War II, Jews and non-Jews lived side by side in Oświęcim and called it home. This exhibit examines the rich history of Oświęcim, Poland—the town the Germans called Auschwitz—through photographs that trace the life of the town and its Jewish residents, from the 16th century through the post-war period.

A Town Known as Auschwitz - History

A Town Known as Auschwitz – History

A second exhibit, The Auschwitz Album: The Story of a Transport from Yad Vashem interprets the only surviving visual evidence of the process of mass murder at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Auschwitz Album includes photos that were taken in late May or early June 1944, either by Ernst Hoffman or Bernhard Walter, two SS men assigned to fingerprint and take ID photos of the inmates. The photos portray the arrival of Hungarian Jews from Carpatho-Ruthenia, many of whom came from the Berehov Ghetto, which itself was a collecting point for Jews from several other small towns. The beginning of summer 1944 marked the apex of the deportation of Hungarian Jewry. For this purpose, a special rail line was extended from the railway station outside Auschwitz to a ramp inside the camp. Many of the photos in the album were taken on this ramp. Upon arriving in the camp, the Jews underwent a selection process, carried out by SS doctors and wardens. Those considered fit for work were sent into the camp, where they were registered, deloused, and assigned to barracks. The others were sent to the gas chambers.

From The Auschwitz Album

From The Auschwitz Album

These two exhibits will be displayed side by side and will provide visitors with the opportunity to consider the full history of the town and camp. We are planning on supplementing the exhibit with an art installation, Memory Reconstruction: A Sacred Culture Rebuilt, that will serve as a tribute to Maryland’s community of Holocaust survivors and their families. The JMM will work with California-based artist, Lori Shocket, to facilitate an interactive workshop for survivors and their families. During the workshops, participants bring family photographs and documents as well as stories to share with one another. Each survivor’s story is told through a collage printed on birch wood that integrates photos of personal artifacts along with stories. Collages will then be assembled into an art installation in the JMM lobby. Check out the website humanelementproject.com to learn more about this project and to see samples of the installation from The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.

Selections from Memory Reconstructed

Selections from Memory Reconstruction

The exhibitions also present us with an abundance of programming opportunities for both school and general audiences. For many years, the JMM has partnered with the Baltimore Jewish Council to facilitate Holocaust-related educational programs for students and teachers and we plan on developing many new educational resources that will help us expand these efforts. We anticipate holding many related public programs including survivor talks, lectures, films and authors talks.

Planning for the exhibitions and programs involves many members of our team.  Although these are “rental” exhibits, we still need to develop a design for space, plan for the preparation of the gallery and the handling of artifacts, and work with the project artist on connecting to Baltimore resources.  And of course, the most critical part of our planning is raising the funds to support all the activities above and more.  Yad Vashem has generously donated the rental of its exhibit thanks to a referral from JMM Board member, Dr. Sheldon Bearman.  Still we estimate that the total cost of mounting the exhibits and supporting the programs will be about $50,000. We are working with the Board Development committee to identify community members with a strong interest in supporting this important project.

We know that many of you reading this newsletter appreciate JMM’s commitment to serving as a premiere Holocaust educational venue.  If you or anyone you know is interested in learning more about sponsorship opportunities for this project (or any of our upcoming exhibits), please contact me at (410) 732-6400 x236 / dcardin@jewishmuseummd.org.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




A Visit to the Twin Cities

Posted on November 23rd, 2015 by

If you were tasked with coming up with a concept for a new core exhibition project that would tell the story of Maryland Jewish history for audiences of all ages and backgrounds, one that integrated new technologies and featured innovative exhibition design strategies, where would you start? One way to begin the process is to take a look at model exhibit projects across the country and to speak with leading museum professionals in search of inspiration. I was lucky enough to take part on a three-day fact finding mission to Minneapolis and St. Paul to do just that.

The JMM has recently embarked on the planning process to develop an exhibit that will replace Voices of Lombard Street. Our vision is to create an interactive exhibit that engages diverse audiences in learning about the many nuances of Maryland Jewish history, that highlights our outstanding collections and is truly a 21st century exhibit, meaning that it takes advantage of new technology and theories of how best to engage visitors through design.

Members of our exhibit advisory committee have spent the past few weeks traveling to other cities in search of innovative projects to help inform our project development and planning. In the beginning of the month, I had the privilege of visiting the Twin Cities with two other committee members, Program Committee Chair, Jerry Macks and Anita Kassof, Executive Director of the Baltimore Museum of Industry (and former Associate Director of the JMM). During our three day trip, we visited six museums, enjoyed the famed Midwestern hospitality (while not enjoying quite as much the cold weather) and took lots of notes. Here are some of the highlights of our trip.

Our first stop was the American Swedish Institute (www.asimn.org), which is located inside an early 20th century castle built by a Swedish immigrant who became a newspaper magnate. The museum’s entrance is in a modern visitor center built recently to house a beautiful and inviting gift shop, café and public program space. The museum definitely had its charms including the beautifully handcrafted interior design features as well as friendly and knowledgeable volunteers. The third floor of the house contained exhibits on such topics as the history of Swedish immigration to Minneapolis (we would have loved to have learned this info earlier in our visit) as well as on Swedish hospitals and music. The ASI’s mission to serve as a cultural center for people of all backgrounds, including many new immigrants who currently reside in Minneapolis, resonated with us and spoke to the significant role that ethnic specific museums can play in their communities.

One of many elaborately tiled fireplaces at the American Swedish Institute.

One of many elaborately tiled fireplaces at the American Swedish Institute.

Next up, the Bakken Museum (www.thebakken.org), a quirky museum founded by inventor Earl Bakken to house his collection of medical equipment and electrical devices. The museum’s exhibits feature an abundance of interactive displays that delight visitors of all ages and teach about an array of scientific principles. One of the things we most enjoyed about the museum was its promotion of social experiences among visitors through activities that involved more than one person.

For example, at Benjamin Franklin’s Electricity Party, one person turned cranks while another grabbed a metal bar to light sparks and ring bells.

For example, at Benjamin Franklin’s Electricity Party, one person turned cranks while another grabbed a metal bar to light sparks and ring bells.

Another highlight was the Cabinet of Curiosity that featured favorite artifacts from the museum’s collections selected by staff, volunteers and board members. It was fun to read why individuals selected the objects that they did and a nearby iPad provided additional information about specific artifacts.

Cabinet of Curiosity.

Cabinet of Curiosity

The next day was spent in St. Paul which is situated a mere 8 miles from Minneapolis across the Mississippi River. Our morning was spent at the impressive Minnesota Science Museum (www.smm.org/). The highlight of the visit was having the chance to meet with Paul Martin, Senior Vice President of Science Learning, who shared with us his vast knowledge about exhibit design and visitor engagement. It was enlightening hearing Paul’s observations about the many factors that play into visitors’ experiences and what kinds of things we should be taking into consideration as we begin planning our new core exhibit. Paul also kindly showed us around the museum’s exhibits which gave us the chance to see how these theories play out in an array of exhibit spaces. Most impressive were the Collector’s Corner where visitors are encouraged to bring in specimens from nature that they can research and, if they like, swap what they’ve brought for something else in the exhibit as well as a temporary exhibit that helps visitors explore and understand complex mathematical principles.

Minnesota Science Museum

Minnesota Science Museum

We also had the chance to see the groundbreaking exhibit, Race: Are We So Different? that challenges conventional notions of race. We left after three hours feeling energized and inspired.

From there, we walked a short distance to the Minnesota History Center, which contains exhibits exploring Minnesota history. Our initial impression was, honestly, not so great. It was a little difficult to find our way around and the first two exhibits we saw were packed with school kids. While we were impressed with the experiential nature of the exhibits as well as the many opportunities for hands-on engagement, we found them lacking in interpretation.

Although there definitely were some cool interactives such as stations where visitors could scan QR codes found on objects to learn more.

Although there definitely were some cool interactives such as stations where visitors could scan QR codes found on objects to learn more.

We persevered, however, and moved on to a quieter section of the museum where we experienced a beautiful exhibit honoring the lives of Minnesota’s “Greatest Generation,” the men and women who lived through the Depression and World War II. Another enjoyable exhibit explored the science behind Minnesota’s weather. As it was a rather chilly day (at least Anita, Jerry and I thought so – we were shocked to see people walking about without coats!), it was interesting learning about the extremes of weather that Minnesotans experience (and made me appreciate living in Baltimore much more).

For our last day, we ventured back to Minneapolis for one of the coolest museums I’ve ever visited. Mill City (www.millcitymuseum.org) is operated by the Minnesota History Center and built on the ruins of what was once a booming flour mill. In the cavernous space, visitors learn about the importance of the milling industry to Minneapolis’s history and the role that the Mississippi River played in its development. The museum experience takes advantage of its location by completely immersing visitors in the factory environment of a flour mill and one of its most unique (and fun) activities is an elevator ride that delivers the history of the mill through recorded oral histories and period sets that are revealed as the doors of the elevator open onto different floors. The elevator lets visitors out on the top floor where there is an observation deck that provides stunning views of the river.

View from Mill City.

View from Mill City.

The exhibit on the lower level of the mill includes a thorough history of the milling industry complete with a variety of interactive activities (many of which are low tech), a working kitchen where volunteers provide baking demonstrations (this is one of the few museums I’ve experienced that includes both smell and taste as integral parts of the visit) and a brief but informative film that provides an overview of Minneapolis’s history.

Mill City lower floor exhibit

Mill City lower floor exhibit

Although we were somewhat fatigued after spending so much time visiting museums, our flight home didn’t leave for a few hours so we decided to add one more non-history /non- science museum to our tour and visited the Walker Art Center (www.walkerart.org), a leading contemporary art museum. Our visit happened to coincide with the first Saturday of the month which is their free day so the place was teeming with visitors, many of whom brought their children for the variety of hands-on art workshops.  While it was refreshing to have the chance to view art (and the collection is outstanding), we were definitely feeling a little overwhelmed and museumed out, so we did not stay too long.

All in all, Jerry, Anita and I were thrilled to have the chance to see such a variety of outstanding museums. We came away with many terrific ideas that will certainly inform our exhibit planning process.

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

 

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




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