Finding History in the Collections

Posted on July 26th, 2019 by

Blog post by JMM intern Ariella Shua. To read more posts from JMM interns, past and present, click here.


 

I’m not a crazy history buff – I have to hear dates and names multiple times before I can remember them. But I’ve always liked knowing how old something is, or who used to use an item. It’s especially cool when these details connect an object to history we already know.

While working at the JMM, I’ve made a few such discoveries. I wasn’t searching for any particular connection. I was just recording the facts about a person, place, or time. The importance of these items to me, to Jewish history, or even to American history were bonuses that came with the facts I was searching for.

The first moment of historical significance came on my first day at the JMM. As we went on our first tour of the Lloyd Street Synagogue, we were taught its story. The synagogue is the third oldest Jewish house of worship in Maryland, and the third oldest still standing in the US. I’d already known that the JMM had historic objects in their possession. I had no idea that one of those objects was a building. Even better, I was excited to know that I’d now been in two of the top three oldest synagogues in the US. I had fallen asleep in the oldest, Touro Synagogue, a few years before (long story, but I hope to go back and see it for real in the future).

Inside the museum, I spend a lot of time in the “Voices of Lombard Street” exhibit. It provides an immersive walkthrough “tour” of Lombard Street, one of Jonestown’s Jewish neighborhoods, from the early 1900s. When schools and camps visit, I usually guide the kids through the sewing machine activity.

They “sew” together creations on a replica 1914 Singer sewing machine. I’ve used a sewing machine before, but it looks nothing like this one – the Singer on display requires pushing a heavy foot pedal in order to operate.

My assumption was that kids would never recognize the machine. But during multiple tour groups, kids tell me about their own experiences, sewing on more modern machines, or seeing old-fashioned sewing machines in their grandmother’s houses. It never occurred to me that an object that seems so obsolete to me is still relevant in many people’s lives, even in a different way.

Most of the historical connections I’ve made have been in the last few weeks. I am working on a project to discover the historical significance of Windsor Hills, a Baltimore neighborhood which large numbers of Jews once called home. While researching, I’ve come across the names of former residents who I know. I don’t know them personally – all I know is their names. Hutzler, Hollander, and Wolman will all be immediately familiar to any other Hopkins student. They all have buildings or rooms named after them at the school. I never expected to run into them at the JMM, yet here they are.

I’m spending a lot of time on PastPerfect, the JMM’s collections database, while I do my Windsor Hills research. Some of the connections I’ve found point to the darker history that was once in Jonestown. While doing an innocent search for ice cream, I came across multiple results for Hendler Ice Cream Company. Most of the records, photos, and ads that showed up in JMM collections are cheery ice cream pictures.

 

One, though, stood out for its offensive imagery. A 1925 poster for a frozen watermelon snack instantly registered in my eyes as racist. Yet in the 1920s, such an ad was perfectly acceptable – a sign of how much the times have changed.

Fortunately, most of my PastPerfect searches have resulted in records that are much less offensive. During my Windsor Hills research, I’ve even found some former residents who have made their mark on American history.

Jacob Beser, for instance, shows up again and again in the JMM’s collections.

I’d never heard of him before, but I quickly learned that he was the only crew member to participate in both of the Enola Gay’s missions: bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As it turned out, he and his family lived in Windsor Hills, and he was involved in the local Jewish community. Now, some of his former possessions are in the JMM’s collections, telling their history to those who want to find out more.

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JMM Insights: Stitching Things Together

Posted on July 19th, 2019 by

It’s all in the timing!  Coordinating exhibit schedules is a task in itself, and when two exhibits occupy the same gallery this can be tricky. This month’s edition of JMM Insights comes from Director of Collections and Exhibits Joanna Church who will keep the story of Fashion Statement going through mid-September (with a little timely help from our friends). Missed any previous editions of JMM Insights? You can catch up here!


The Feldman Gallery currently holds two separate, but related exhibits: Fashion Statement, created by the JMM, and Stitching History from the Holocaust, created by the Jewish Museum Milwaukee (The other JMM!). We’ve been humbled and grateful for the positive attention these two exhibits have garnered since we opened them in early April (and even before!)

JMore reported on the fact that we would be displaying Gil Sandler’s porkpie hat way back in August of 2018. We were frontpage news for the JewishTimes. JMore named the exhibit a Top Event Pick for April 2019 and went on to dive deep in the whys and hows of the two exhibits with a feature story.

WJZ came to see us twice. Once in their “Coffee With” segment in May and then again for a morning segment on June 23, the day of the Jonestown Festival. Marvin joined his counterpart from the American Visionary Art Museum for an appearance on WYPR’s Midday with Tom Hall. Midday at the Museums discussed the ways the two museums address the Holocaust through textiles in current exhibits.

Attention from the press is amazing. As important is the attention we get from our educator partners. We especially love it when the exhibit in the gallery and students’ experiences in our historic synagogues work together to create discoveries and memories. A few highlights from our teachers, include:

“I just want to thank you again for the field trip yesterday to the museum.  The students were engaged and excited about what they learned and saw.  The amount of time was just perfect.  The activities were so appropriate, and your staff was wonderful and patient.”

“The students and parents all talked about how much they enjoyed their time at the museum.  The students said that they liked learning out the old clothing, the bathing rituals, the synagogue, the Old Testament scrolls, the arc in the synagogue, and the history of the building.  It has been a week and a half, and they still remember a ton!” 

Splitting the gallery the way we did for Fashion Statement and Stitching History from the Holocaust is a great way to maximize our use of the space. It allowed us to get all of this great attention, and share even more stories with our visitors … but what happens when one of those exhibits needs to close sooner than the other?

Stitching History will be closing here on August 5th (so if you haven’t yet had the chance to see it, make your plans now!); after a brief rest, it will go on display again at the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Florida. That leaves us with a slice of gallery to fill until September 15th, when Fashion Statement closes in its turn and we begin to prepare the gallery for Scrap Yard: Innovators of Recycling. As we have done often during this clothing-focused year, we’ve turned to Stevenson University and the Stitching Maryland Together project for assistance.

Stevenson’s design students were a tremendous help with our Fashion Statement interactives.

We were also delighted to be part of the Stitching Maryland Together short documentary film project, which premiered at Expedition I, the fashion design school’s gala runway show and senior showcase held May 4, 2019 at Ram’s Head Live. A few members of the JMM staff took the opportunity to attend the event, and – speaking for myself, at least – were awed by the talent and skill displayed by these students, from the fashion collections to the documentary to the logistics of pulling off an event of this scale.

We’ve offered the use of our slice-of-gallery to the fashion department at Stevenson, and while we don’t know yet quite what that will look like – we’re hoping to get some of the clothing featured during the runway show itself! – keep your eyes open for more information on our continued collaboration with these talented young men and women.


 

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One Month Update: What I’ve Learned in My First Four Weeks as a JMM Intern

Posted on June 28th, 2019 by

Blog post by JMM intern Hannah Balik. To read more posts from JMM interns, past and present, click here.


As my fourth week at the Jewish Museum of Maryland comes to a close, I think that it is time for some reflection. I have done so much and learned so much during this internship so far. One of my favorite parts of interning at the Jewish Museum this summer has been learning about the amazing and rich Jewish history that Baltimore has. I am originally from New York, a place with its own diverse and beautiful Jewish life and history. Going to school at Goucher College in Towson for four years gave me a connection to the Baltimore area, but I knew little about the Jewish community here and its rich history. Since starting at the JMM, I have been learning all about the Baltimore Jewish community’s over one-hundred-and-fifty-year long history in the Jonestown neighborhood. Getting to experience the Jonestown neighborhood and learn about all the history that took place under my feet has helped me feel more connected to Baltimore.

One of the rare books we were able to view at the Walters.

This learning has been helped by the museum trips we have been taking as an intern group. So far, we have gone to the Walters Museum, where we had the opportunity to see some rare books. We also went to the Star Spangled Banner Flag House, which was so interesting, as I hadn’t previously known the connection between Baltimore, the American flag, and our National Anthem. We also had the opportunity to sit in on a meeting at the Baltimore National Heritage Area office, which perhaps was the best look at what it means to be a museum professional – lots of meetings with other museum professionals.

Being an education and programming intern, I have been working on a lot of projects. One of the projects I have been working on is revamping the educational interactive pieces that are in the Lloyd Street Synagogue lower floor exhibit. This has been a really fun project, and I have the opportunity to create an educational game that will hopefully be used in school group tours in the future. I’ve also been creating, along with the other Education intern, Ariella, educator’s guides for Jews in Space, an exhibit that is coming to the JMM in this spring. These educator guides aim to help teachers in Jewish schools as well as public and non-Jewish private schools to prepare their students for the exhibit and help them best connect the information learned at the museum to their normal lessons. I learned a lot researching that exhibit, including the fact that the Vulcan salute from Star Trek has its origins in an ancient Jewish ritual. I also learned about Judith Resnik, the first Jewish American and Jewish woman in space, who sadly perished in the Challenger disaster. I loved learning about her and her connection to Maryland- she earned her PhD in Electrical Engineering at the University of Maryland. Learning small details like that is what makes research really fun and interesting for me.

I have also been working on programming for the Scrap Yard exhibit, an original JMM exhibit which opens this fall. I have learned so much about garbage, which is actually much more interesting than it sounds! I won’t bore you with the trashy details, but the scrap industry was huge in Baltimore for a long time, and many people earned a lot of money through the business. One research nugget I found in my Scrap Yard research is the philanthropy work of Bernard Schapiro. Bernard immigrated to Baltimore when he was seven, and left school when he was 14 to work in his family’s rag scrap business. In 1918, when Bernard was 19, he and his brother founded Solomon Schapiro and Sons, a rag recycling business they operated alongside their father and later, their other brother. Learning about the scrap business was interesting enough, but what truly interested me when researching Bernard was his dedication to philanthropy.

Moving bales of rags, Shapiro Company, Baltimore, MD 1942.

In 1979, he founded People Encouraging People, or PEP, a program which works in conjunction with Sinai Hospital’s Department of Psychiatry to help people transition out of psychiatric institutions. They offer clinical services, housing, workforce development, services for those who are homeless, and recover services for those in need. Bernard Schapiro also founded Schapiro Training and Employment Program Inc, or STEP in 1986, which aims to give new beginnings to a highly stigmatized group of people: those with mental illness and psychiatric disabilities. Both of these institutions are still around in Baltimore and are helping people every day. It’s easy to forget that the people we study were real people, and not just one thing that they did. Bernard earned his way through scrap, as many other immigrants in Baltimore and around the country did, but he took his money and put it back in the community, which is beautiful.

I’ve already learned so much thus far in this internship.

Research nuggets are just the beginning. I have the knowledge and ability to lead museum visitors through the entire museum: I can sell them an admission ticket, give them a tour of our current exhibits, including the Lloyd Street Synagogue, and then I can sell them a “Oy Vey” magnet at the gift shop. I’ve also learned about museum accessibility, museum evaluations, different databases common in small museums, and other vital things for a career in museums. Not only am I learning all of this valuable information, but I get to go on cool field trips also! This first month has been a great experience, and I have learned a lot of invaluable information about what it means to be a museum professional. I am very excited to see where the next six weeks of this internship takes me.

 

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