Posted on July 7th, 2016 by Rachel
Every week we’re asking our summer interns to share some thoughts and responses to various experiences and readings. This week we asked them to read and respond to one of two readings, “If You Can’t See It Don’t Say It: A New Approach to Interpretive Writing” and “The Art of Failure.”
If You Can’t See It Don’t Say It: A New Approach to Interpretive Writing by Kris Wetterlund
(Read it yourself here.)
Wellcome Library, London.
No More “That”
“If you Can’t See It Don’t Say It” by Kris Wetterlund talks about how to look at art and create descriptive museum labels that incorporates the story of the art based off what is present in it. The writing described in the article is a much different style than I am used to writing. Throughout my college career I wrote art exhibit entries for classes, modeled off short articles highlighting a specific piece of art. In these I would describe what I saw, but the main writing would be the context of the work; where it came from, how it was made, and how it fits into a historical or prehistorical context. For museum labels, according to Wetterlund, the context should be condensed or left out so that the label can focus on describing what the viewer is actually looking at.
Wetterlund also offers some advice that I can see being valuable in writing outside of the museum setting, such as using the active rather than the passive voice. I have heard this advice many times but very few teachers or writers have offered useful suggestions besides looking at verbs and making sure the subject is the one doing the action. In a tip box on page 20 of the article suggests removing “that” and “then” where possible. Just in typing this blog, I see the impact such a simple edit makes.
The article contradicts itself in the final section about storytelling. The first thing the author says is to not include information that the viewer can’t see when writing labels, and then they include a label for a “Bible Quilt” by Harriet Powers that does not tell us anything about the images actually on the quilt, but instead about how the quilt was made and how the museum got it. This change in approach to museum labels was not well explained in the article. A reason for the different style of label could perhaps be the type of museum the piece is displayed in. The first example of a museum label seen in the article is for Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin’s “The Attributes of the Arts and the Rewards Which Are Accorded Them,” on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Being an art museum where people are there to view the art, it would make sense that the label should focus on what the viewer can see. The “Bible Quilt” is on display at the National Museum of American History where the focus would be on the stories of the objects and how they are relevant to American history, more so than the artistic techniques employed.
For the most part the article is easy to understand and breaks down what the author feels are the most important things to consider when doing interpretive writing in a museum setting.
History Might Need More
In If You Can’t See It, Don’t Say It, Kris Wetterlund offers advice on how museum professionals can engage with their visitors more efficiently through the writing on labels. Her central point, as the title says, is that you should only address visible elements of an object in its label. Its provenance, importance to an artistic movement, and place in art theory are all unimportant distractions for a reader who just wants to figure out, concretely, what they are looking at. This is generally good advice–simplicity and focus should always be objectives of museum labels–but Wetterlund’s main emphasis is art museums, and her recommendations become problematic when you attempt to apply them to history museums.
The goals of art museums and history museums are fundamentally different. In a history museum, every object in an exhibit works together to create an interpretive whole, and the labels must explain, implicitly or explicitly, why the object in the case is a part of the story the museum is telling. In other terms, the importance of a central story to history exhibits necessitates more abstract interpretation of its artifacts.
Another unique feature of history museums is their focus on humanity. Seemingly mundane objects can be very important to these museums because they signify parts of the human experience. In these cases, labels that just address what the visitor can see would do the objects a disservice. People using those objects everyday imbues them with significance, and that is not evident on first glance.
Kris Wetterlund’s suggestions in If You Can’t See It, Don’t Say It are generally useful but should be implemented with caution in history museums.
A Focus on the Concrete
I thought the article, “If You Can’t See It Don’t Say It: A new Approach to Interpretive Writing” by Kris Wetterlund, contained interesting insights that could be applied to many situations. It focused on how to write engaging art exhibit labels, but also gave advice for writing in general. What I appreciated most was that the article spoke in the same tone that they were encouraging others to write in. I’ve read multiple articles promoting, for example, more accessible resources for under-educated populations, which were written in a niche, academic words, so it didn’t seem like the authors really believed in what they were writing. With this article, I believed it.
One of my favorite pieces of advice was to write concrete rather than abstract ideas. It gave a useful suggestion for checking that it’s concrete by asking, “Why?” after writing something. It providing a great example using a label that first says, “Objects in the painting switch in and out of perspective.” After asking, “Why?” a better label would say, “He wasn’t interested in how things looked, instead he tried to record the act of looking.” I was actually surprised by how much more I understood the artist and art based on the second label. I also liked the advice to “write the way you talk.” It reminded me of a method I use to help people figure out how to write something down clearly, by just asking, “What you are really trying to say or get across?” Usually people are suddenly able to summarize it in one sentence! However, I disagreed with the advice that numbers and statistics turn people away because they’re too impersonal. I think a combination works best. While hearings emotional appeals like, “New mother murdered!” make you feel something, numbers can help really help demonstrate a systemic tragedy rather than a personal misfortunes. I agree that they shouldn’t necessary be the main focus, but if there’s already a picture depicting the event, especially if it’s graphic, then it’s already emotionally grabbing enough and then the caption can be more filled with statistics. Overall, however, I’m happy to say that this article will make me think differently about labels in art museums. There’s always more going on behind the scenes than you think!
Who Are Museums For?: The Accessibility of Museum Labels
While museums may have once been private collections of the very wealthy, never meant to be seen by the working class or peoples of various identities, museums today are widely public. Though sometimes geared toward certain communities or demographics, museums are meant to be accessible to everyone, sometimes even forgoing a cost of admission. So why then are some museums so gosh darn boring? And how is it that a place that supposedly welcomes all people can, upon visiting, still feel exclusive?
After reading Krist Wetterlund’s guide “If You Can’t See It Don’t Say It: A New Approach to Interpretive Writing” I think one of the main culprits are the museum labels, or the captions that accompany objects and paintings. Going to art museums, for example, can sometimes feel like being a kid in school and hanging out with one of the older kids, who tries to make you feel dumb by talking about things you haven’t even learned yet. Museums should give everyone an equal footing to learn about what they’re displaying, whether that’s how to interpret a painting, understanding the historical context behind an object, or questioning what deserves to be in a museum at all. I appreciate Wetterlund’s guide, which recommends labels that are simple, active instead of passive, and that focus on the information that people are really curious to learn about. She gives an example with a Cezanne painting. Bad label: “Paul Cezanne was influential in the development of the Cubist movement.” Good label: “He wasn’t interested in how things looked, instead he tried to record the act of looking.”
Labels are there to help the visitor interpret what they’re seeing. They should tell a story that helps us connect to the museum and remember what we’ve learned, rather than deliver a lecture that goes above our heads and alienates us from “high art” or “classical antiquity.” If museums are truly for everybody, then labels should be for everybody, too.
The Art of Failure: The Importance of Risk and Experimentation, NEA Arts, No. 4, 2014
(Read it yourself here.)
Every Person Fails in their Own Way
When I read articles like the ones contained in this 2014 issue of NEA Arts, “The Art of Failure”, my first reaction is always to consider how the lessons within apply to my own life. That’s natural, I feel—I’m only twenty-one years old, still trying to figure out my future. And as helpful as that can be, for this issue it’s almost a useless exercise. Each of these articles—written by artists who are outstanding in their field—is really the story of one person learning about failure by experiencing their own specific failures. Each story then boils down to two general lessons: you have to ignore the fear of failure to take risks, and you have to work hard. And who am I to say that isn’t the recipe? But I think that the truly crucial lesson that none of them —Toni Morrison, Geoff Nuttall, Perry Chen, Carlos Murrillo, Sarah Kaufman, Gene Luan Yang, or Janai Brugger—come out and say is that you have to keep saying “yes”: “yes, I want to try this”, or “yes, this is what I want from my life”, or even, “yes, this is possible”. Each made the decision to stick with it, every time they felt knocked down or unsuccessful.
In my experience, adults like to give people my age (not adults, no matter what the law says) articles like this to read, to inspire us or to teach us. In particular for me, this issue didn’t change my life. They’re very good articles, and I think that they have valuable lessons inside; but I think they are lessons you have to learn yourself. The only way to learn to take risks and overcome a fear of failure is to do whatever it is that could fail—like Toni Morrison or Geoff Nuttall, or any successful artist. You can’t learn these lessons from a magazine; you have to keep just saying yes to what you want in your own life.
The Best Advice
I feel like, as someone who is reaching the end of her college career (potentially the end of my academic career as well), the horror of failing without a structured schedule year after year is terrifying. There are a lot more loose ends that need to be taken care of now that were never a problem previously. Reading about all of these famous people, who started off as regular people practicing a craft, who have failed on their way to stardom was inspiring in the sense that it is something that needs to said and heard.
A lot of people only see the end result, but as Kickstarter co-founder Perry Chen suggested “it’s also about the practice and the journey to get there” (Chen 9). I think a lot of people in my position, who fear the unknown of what the future holds only see shallow success stories. When you are struggling to figure life out no one tell about the uphill battles you will have to face are how truly difficult it is to make it anywhere. However, soprano singer Janai Brugger said what I found most inspiring in the The Art of Failure. She said, “the best advice I received as a young singer is that you have to follow your own path and not try to be on anybody else’s ” (Brugger 21). That is something I have to frequently tell myself, because it is difficult not to compare myself to people my own age that I view as already ahead of me. Still, there is no reason to compare yourself to anyone else, because everyone has a different path they are supposed to take, some take longer than others, but eventually we all get to where we need to be.
What is Success?
Reading several artist’s statements on the importance of failure in the creative process got me thinking: if failure is useful to our future success, is it really failure? And moreover, how do we know when we have really succeeded?
It seems that writers, actors, scientists, and other scions of our society contend that failure is not an endpoint, but rather a stepping stone; a prototype. Not an entity in itself, but just a part of the creative process, like the rejection of an unsupported hypothesis in the scientific process. But what then, is success? In the scientific process, there is no endpoint, no finished product, only an incremental climb up a ladder of truth, which gets us closer and closer to the answer of an unknown question. So can there be success in anything else? Sure, we may have success in the sense that we are financially secure, publicly lauded, and approved of by society, but outside the parameters of the social system, is success a reality? Is it not too just a stepping stone to further and further success, being indistinct from failure except for the response of outsiders? Does a person deemed successful halt their work, and simply bask in their achievement the rest of their life? Can such a thing be called success? I do not presume to know the answers to these questions, but perhaps questions are better; they prolong the process of inquiry and sharpen our wits, and they keep us trying. And isn’t that what learning from failure is about anyway?
A Means to Grow
The Art of Failure discusses the hidden nuances associated with a lack of success. Failure is typically seen as the worst-case scenario of an endeavor. The writers discuss failure and the positives that come with it, as well as what conventional wisdom has typically taught people overt time
Toni Morrison directly compares the presence of failure between science and art.. In science, failure has it’s inherent benefits in regards to finding a solution. This concept is best exemplified by Thomas Edison who after failing 10,000 times to create a lightbulb stated “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”.
However, Morrison believes that failure in art is far more stigmatized. A failed artist often discarded and stigmatized. Rather than failure being seen an infinite dark hole, it should be seen as a step closer to success. Sir Ken Robinson, an internationally recognized educator, shares a similar view. He suggests that “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with any anything original”. These sentiments from Edison, Robinson and Morrison suggest that the fear of failure is strong enough to deter confidence in one’s own creativity.
As president of Baltimore BBYO, a teen-led youth group, I worked my adviser, Mitch Liebeskind, who had a love for risk-taking and an appreciation for failure as a means to grow. I can recall several occasions where I performed inadequately, in either public speaking or event planning, and felt immediately downcast about the outcome. Mitch’s response was often to look at what went wrong, why it went wrong and quickly move on to the next task. A melancholy response to failure would not change what happened, much less improve future events. Mitch insisted on learning from mistakes, seeing the positive in a situation, no matter how small, and moving forward. Although it has been years since Mitch and I worked on a project together, these three simple concepts are still a part of my leadership today.
Not one to set small goals, but happy to learn from mistakes Mitch encouraged me to aim big, and fail bigger. “Fail fantastic” was a phrase commonly heard during brainstorming sessions. Naturally, Mitch never encouraged me to perform poorly, but he insisted that I was to fail “It better be a good show”. He did insist that I step far out of my comfort zone as in order to mature and grow, personally and professionally.
Melissa (my co-president), Mitch, and Me
An Unlikely Motivator: Facing Failure
The NEA Grant Foundations magazine issue No.4 titled The Art of Failure is a compilation of articles dealing from famous artists responding to their take on facing failure.
It begins with Toni Morrison a prominent African-American author who worked for the NEA for a time. Toni Morrison sees the creative process as a procedure, it is all information and if something doesn’t work or gives the wrong impression it can be corrected because half the process is editing. I found this intriguing as an artist; art is something I have always personally felt was free flowing and tangible, and the end product ends up being orderly and formed. The chaos of the process creates a loose model of what the final product is to be, because criticism, editing and feedback are really what end up polishing and fully forming the ‘end’ product. As Tony Morrison points out there are revisions she wanted to pursue years after her books were published. I agree with this because in the end art is not something that has a final product that cannot in some way be improved, the fun and challenge of art is finding a good stopping point where you aren’t overdoing it or leaving something ‘half-baked’. Perry Chen’s approach of putting out work, getting the feedback and developing gradual confidence is appealing to me as he works in fields closely related to my own. I found it interesting and problematic when he mentions just “pushing the button” and putting your work out there. It immediately subjects your work to feedback which is good, but at the same time if it is left there in that state it is essentially not a failure but useless unless it immediately clicks into what it is supposed to do/impact. So if that risk is taken it is important to respond to that feedback.
If someone was to produce work that got no negative feedback constantly they would not grow as an artist, or as a person. Failure is inspiration in itself; sometimes failure realigns the track when someone feels derailed in concept or execution. Sometimes failure is necessary for motivating people to pursue a task or project, acting as fuel for a stubborn drive to get an idea in the world. I work primarily with media arts, which ostensibly looks incredibly orderly and deliberate. In reality it is a mass of constantly changing variables that all rely on feedback, failure and praise. Praise is a nice immediate feeling but when you are receiving a lot of it half way through your work process there is only so much it can do to help compared to someone letting you know what looks better, what could be changed. It is more valuable towards the end of the work process where it is expected and strived for.
~O. Cade Simon
A Part of Life
This week I read the NEA Arts articles about failure. It explores the concept of failure versus success in the artistic world. My favorite article was an interview with Nobel Prize winning author, Toni Morrison. She encourages writers to understand themselves and let go of something when it is just not working. Morrison, along with the rest of the artists interviewed, perceives failure as a learning tool instead of an issue.
Failure, whether personal or institutional, is a part of life. This positive outlook does not make the pain of failure fade from existence, but it does lessen the blow. What many tend to forget is that failure—something unsuccessful— is often the more common result. These unsuccessful attempts are just learning experiences that provide information for future tries. They show what does not work so that we can try another way that could succeed. Perseverance and allowing oneself to fail will bring the greatest rewards.
Posted on June 17th, 2016 by Rachel
We were looking at a big wooden cabinet, partially shrouded by a thin sheet of protective foam. Even covered up, it was clearly an object of wonder: towering, but intricate; intricate, but functional. Not just a cabinet, it is also a replica of the Hutzler brother’s so-called Palace, formerly located at Lexington and Howard. The Hutzler Palace opened in 1888 as the first department store in Baltimore. A year later, David Hutzler commissioned C.F. Meislahn for the cabinet, which he gave to his wife Ella in honor of their 15th anniversary.
The cabinet, revealed! (JMM 1989.204.001)
Karen, the JMM’s curator, explained how Joanna, the collections manager, thought the cabinet was too overused to be considered for exhibition in the new core exhibit, which will replace Voices of Lombard Street in 2019. But looking back at previous exhibit catalogs, the cabinet hasn’t been used since the Enterprising Emporiums: The Jewish Department Stores of Downtown Baltimore of 2001. With the cabinet back on the table, Karen talked display.
“I really hate display cases,” she said, explaining the impracticality of building a case built specifically to hold one item: “You can never use them again.” But Karen took deeper issue with glass cases than just their too-specific dimensions. “As soon as you put an object in a case, or on a pedestal, there’s a disconnect.” Somehow, when even the most mundane objects are put into glass cases, they suddenly become “too good” for the visitor. If museums offer a chance to become intimate with history and its artifacts, glass cases tell the visitor, “You can look, but you can’t touch!” The intimacy is lost.
This is particularly relevant at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. Having spent years with the museum’s collections and discussing them, Karen describes them as collections where the everyday is privileged. When she tours me and Alice, the other exhibitions intern, around the storage rooms, she pulls out a box of beautiful lacy parasols, owned by elite Jewish women; she points out tea boxes and a porcelain salt box, unboxes an embroidered matzah cover, and opens a dress bag to show us a glamorous white fur coat. We pass by golf trophies and a shelf devoted to charity boxes. Less than an arm length’s away, no glass between us, it’s easy for me to imagine tea boxes sitting on kitchen counters or organized neatly in a cupboard, or one of the golf trophies sitting on a fireplace mantle. Even the Hutzler cabinet becomes familiar when I see it in the background of a picture of the Hutzler’s dining room. The everyday-ness of the items makes imagining them as props in the story of someone’s life all the more simple. Connect them with a good story, and these items can really resonate with a person.
The cabinet (pictured far left) in use in the dining room of the Hutzler home on Eutaw Place. (JMM 1991.024.001a)
Towards the end of our mini-tour, Karen stopped us in front of a shelf where two elaborate silver torah crowns sat side by side. Each was multi-tiered like a wedding cake and decorated with silver flowers and bells, so I was a little surprised when Karen admitted, “I find them a little underwhelming.” But she used them to discuss the ongoing debates among Jewish museums across the country about what the role of the Jewish museum is, and what it is supposed to represent of the broadly defined Jewish experience (further spurred on by an article by Eric Rothstein earlier this year).
“These [religious items] used to be what people came to see,” Karen shared, speaking of Jewish museums of old. But Karen, having tried to do so at various points in her career, does not believe in defining who is a Jew and even what Judaism is, deeming the task impossible. Understanding what it means to be Jewish can’t come from a black and white definition, because it is such a contextual, nuanced position. This is why I think a collection that champions the everyday is the right place for the Jewish museum to be. It reminds me of when a difficult conversation would come up in school, and we would be encouraged to only use “I” statements, so as not to generalize other people’s experiences based on our own. We can’t make blanket statements about who is who and what is what. All we can do is point to specific stories, listen to lived experiences, and try to understand the decisions others have made. I am excited to see how the “everyday” will take the forefront as we continue to develop the new core exhibit.
Blog post by Exhibitions Intern Emilia Halvorsen. To read more posts by and about interns click HERE.
Posted on June 16th, 2016 by Rachel
Every week we’re asking our summer interns to share some thoughts and responses to various experiences and readings. This week we asked them to think about JMM’s exhibits and to share something that has stayed with them.
Who We Are and How We Show It
Since starting last week, I’ve had the pleasure of spending a good deal of time exploring the Jewish Museum’s three current exhibits. It’s been interesting to look at them through the lens of a visitor, interacting with the exhibits and learning from them, as well as through the lens of an Exhibitions Intern, thinking critically about why certain aspects of the exhibits are the way they are, what could be improved, and what I think works really well- and so much of it works really well!
The Beyond Chicken Soup exhibit, which highlights the relationship between Jews, medicine and identity, houses one of the parts I thought worked especially well: the corner where visitors are encouraged to try on the signature white coats of doctors. After discussing how the coat is an important symbol to new doctors, reminding them to be responsible and compassionate with patients, the placard above the coats poses the question: “Do you feel different when dressed this way?”
Like the white coat, the stethoscope is another symbol that marks a person as a doctor, as well as lends the person medical authority.
I found this question particularly interesting. Clothes can be so important in helping to construct our identities, both how we view ourselves and how others see us. As another sign mentioned, patients “can find the garment’s symbolism intimidating,” even causing their pulse and blood pressure to speed up when a doctor in white comes into the room! The coat is a symbol of authority, representing years of education and training. I tried on the coat, but mostly just felt silly; after all, I hadn’t even completed my undergrad, much less done a residency. It felt fraudulent!
Trying on the coat, and feeling like a phony.
I also started thinking about the way I dress, and what I try to convey to people when I do. My current position as an intern has definitely been affecting the way I dress here at the office, with my clothes being more modest and a touch more professional than I usually wear in the summer. At the same time, I still put in effort to make sure the way I dress reflects my sense of style, which in turn is an attempt at reflecting my personality. The notion that objects can express our identities reinforces for me the importance of museum collections; there’s so much to gain from examining personal items more closely, and seeing what stories they have to tell.
America’s Favorite Genes
One of the coolest exhibits here at the Jewish Museum of Maryland is Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews and Medicine in America, a fascinating look into how the field of medicine has shaped the identity of Jewish-Americans in both positive and negative ways. One particularly striking piece of this exhibit is the section on genetics, which is especially thought-provoking because of all the significant ethical dilemmas that have surrounded this issue. For instance, the section begins by discussing eugenics and the toxic, malicious racism inherent in that movement that culminated in such a horrific episode in history, the Holocaust. Seeing the actual eugenics ads and testing slips is a powerful reminder that this wasn’t just a line in a history textbook; that it happened, and that it could happen again as we push genetic testing further and further.
Part of the eugenics display
However, this section of the exhibit also later shows how genetic screening helped control and prevent Tay-Sachs disease within the Jewish population, a considerably valuable use of this science. I think that these two examples together are a compelling dichotomy of ethics and that this section of the exhibit really does a great job of showing how the history of genetic screening has been both catastrophic and beneficial to even just a small segment of the US population within the span of a generation. DNA and genetic screening are still fairly controversial and developing fields in the US now, and learning about the history of the societal impact of this science is, in my opinion, very important for moving forward with this technology.
A Trip to the Basement
The exhibits of the JMM each offer a unique perspective into telling the story of the Jewish community in Baltimore and how that history has been created. The exhibit that stuck out to me the most is the Synagogue speaks exhibit, despite it being the one I have spent the least amount of time in. It showcases the problems of having a building with a long history and trying to decide which part of that history to highlight. The upper part of the Lloyd Street synagogue has been renovated to look as closely as possible to the way it did at the time of its founding in 1845. This of course meant that much of the more recent history of the synagogue had to be removed, elements like a pipe organ and a painted ceiling.
This problem is partially reconciled in the basement where the exhibit Synagogue speaks is housed. The basement was excavated in the 1990s exposing the multiple layers of the museum. Some sections, such as the matzo kiln look as if excavation ended only a few days ago. There are beams exposing the construction of the walls, reminiscent of the Schiferstadt Architectural Museum in Frederick. In the mikvah area, where it would be unsafe to leave area open and unfilled, they instead placed excavation photos over the floor so visitors can see what lies below. The exhibit also shows the deferent eras of construction through exhibit boards with photos, and video screens.
As an archaeologist myself, I appreciate being able to look at what the excavation findings were and how they fit into the context of historical documents. It is also useful to see how the museum chooses to display archaeological artifacts. There is a small display in the center of the exhibit across from a screen showing a slideshow of the various changes to the museum over time. The objects are not the most complete but show the type of objects common in historical excavations, such as pieces of larger ceramic pots, and various glass bottles. Before sealing off the various areas in the basement during past renovations, debris probably found its way into those areas, maybe placed intentionally to help fill in features, such as the mikvah which had been filled in with cement. A piece of the fill cement from the original mikvah is on display showing artifacts still stuck in the cement.
An Intern’s Take on Exhibitions
I have spent about a week in the JMM’s internship program so far. Through my time in this internship I have learned a good deal of new interesting facts about the Jewish community in Maryland and the beginning of the Jewish migration to the United States. Synagogue speaks gave an interesting insight into the various waves of Jewish migrants giving an insight to the reasons for the migrations. More importantly it defined the differences in origin and religious beliefs that these Jewish immigrants felt both in their home countries and once they settled in the United States. This was continued in the exhibit Beyond Chicken Soup which gave even more insight into how these immigrants settled and what roles they filled in society, a prominent theme being the Jewish community filling the relatively new and expanding field of medicine. The exhibit relates the early interest in medicine stemming from certain religious principles of cleanliness and healthy body maintenance.
Diagnosing a Jewish race
One particular section of Beyond Chicken Soup really struck my interest was the work in Eugenics from the Jewish medical community. Up until that point I had always associated Eugenics with a very hostile connotation as it was used as a justification to harm millions of Jewish people in Europe and minorities in the United States (among other places). It was eye opening to see that Jewish interest in Eugenics predated the Nazi’s interest in the subject; I was even more surprised that there is still a degree of interest in finding a genetic trend that makes the Jewish community unique. Overall all the exhibitions had a section that caught my interest in some way.
Antisemitism & Health
While walking through the Beyond Chicken Soup exhibit, I took notice of the objects and panels drawing attention to the ways the world of medicine uniquely acted upon Jewish people more than anything else. The idea that antisemitism had such a concrete effect on the treatment and health of Jewish people was fascinating! Most of all, I was drawn to the small section on eugenics.
A chart that evaluates subjects’ eugenic “fitness” and a graphic that reminds the reader that some people are genetically destined to be burdens.
The practice of eugenics affected the lives of many minority groups in America, but I had never considered how Jewish people might have factored into it. I didn’t realize that antisemitism was so entrenched in the American psyche that people could openly considered Jews to be biologically inferior. Eugenics shows how much harm science and medicine can do when it is practiced by deeply prejudiced people, and that idea has stayed with me ever since I visited Beyond Chicken Soup.
Hair and skin swatches used to classify subjects.
A Lesson in Contrasts
After having completed about two weeks of the JMM internship, there are many valuable lessons that I have learned. Yesterday, I was lucky enough to make the acquaintance of Betsy, who is an absolute to, and who has many words of wisdom. This is just to show the kinds of experiences that can be had here.
I was also sorely disappointed by the flag house, and on Flag Day of all days. A scholarship that was meant to honor a woman of color who was an indentured servant, was given to a white male student, who frankly had little to say about the hardship she must have endured in her life. He said that she was lucky, and should have felt blessed. I think she should have been angry, because I’m angry. I’m angry that the award was given to a white male student from one of the wealthiest counties in the country, when it should have been given to a woman of color from one of the state’s most destitute. I’m angry that nothing was said in the student’s few-sentence long speech about how the issues of that time tie together with the similar issues that we still face today. And I’m angry at the self congratulatory ceremony held at the flag house, which was attended by almost exclusively white people, and their apparent apathy to the major issues regarding inequity in our city, which is one of the most segregated in the country.
In comparison, the Jewish Museum of Maryland is dedicated to the mission of equality in our city, of which I am quite proud to be a part of. As a historically oppressed people, we know the importance of standing up for all else who are oppressed, and realize that our mission, to preserve the historical narrative of the Jewish community in Baltimore, is actually one and the same as fighting for equality and justice in our community to day; not just for Jews, but for all oppressed people. As Jews, who have experienced much prejudice and institutional bias and apathy in the past, it is imperative that we consider its defeat as primary a focus as ours as a historical archive.
Listening to “Voices”
One of the exhibits that has truly spoken to me so far is Voices of Lombard Street. My family has been in Baltimore ever since they came to the United States. My mother has passed on her love of Charm City to me, hardly a day goes by where I don’t learn an interesting fact about Baltimore. The exhibit is practically a physical representation of my mother’s childhood. One of four daughters, my mother grew up seeing Baltimore develop into what it is today. I can almost hear my grandmother talking about her childhood when I walk around the exhibit.
Baltimore has acted as a historic location for Judaism in America. With a multitude of synagogues, a large Jewish population and a rich history, the Monumental City is a natural topic for anyone interested in American Judaism. The artifacts pay homage to the hardworking men and women who lived in Baltimore city. Anyone who enjoys Baltimore history should check out the informative and interactive exhibit that the JMM is hosting!
The Sewing Machine
Of the three exhibits what really caught my eye were the sewing machines in Voices of Lombard Street. At first I was unsure why it did, so I did not give it much thought, but every time I went into the exhibit I realized I always lingered a little longer in that room. The neutral tones, the pink, grey and black scraps of fabric, the design on the sewing machines, it all made me think about women and their experience during this time on Lombard Street. In the exhibit that area discussed sweatshops and workers of both sexes, but sewing has always been associated as a feminine skill, therefore, as a woman I feel a connection.
The Sewing Machine
When we discussed in-depth with Karen Falk about our experience in Voices of Lombard Street, I suggested that the exhibit felt a little creepy, yet homey. While these two feelings are in complete opposition to one another, the combination of antique items, blasting air conditioning and the “old smell”, gave me the feeling of nostalgia mixed with feelings of hope. To clarify, reading about the history and being in a place that represents it makes me have a greater appreciation for what women (in my case) had to go through and an even greater appreciation for where we are today. A lot more work has to be done, but the voices will always be heard.
A Step Farther
In many museums, I’ve seen signs tacked up on exhibit walls simply reading, “Think” or “What would you do?” These vague phrases supposedly encourage the visitor to reflect upon the exhibit or place it into the context of her or his life. However, in Beyond Chicken Soup, JMM goes a step farther. In the middle of the room covering eugenics and genetic diseases, there’s a touch screen that asks thought-provoking questions and offers complex potential answers. One asks, “Would you get tested for a rare genetic mutation that doesn’t affect your health, but could be passed on to your children and make them sick?” with answers such as “Yes, but only for fatal conditions like Tay Sachs” or “No, I’d rather not know if a carry a mutation. I would have children anyway.” Another simply asks, “Who should get screened?”, offering “People from ethnic backgrounds where the BRCA mutation is more prevalent,” as a potential answer. This isn’t the only touchscreen questionnaire in the exhibit, and none of them shy away from difficult and controversial questions and answers. After clicking on your choice, it shows a pie chart breaking down what other visitors answered, sometimes to my surprise.
A sample screen
I’m always looking for relevance in historical facts, for the aspects of them that speak to human nature at anytime or anyplace. I love that the Beyond Chicken Soup exhibit explores this and reminds the visitors that the same questions that arose when genetic testing first emerged remain relevant and complicated today. I hardly knew my answer to any of the questions asked, not even between the two extremes. By non-judgmentally laying out both sides as equally legitimate options, I saw the benefits and detriments to each answer. I hope to see more museums applying these tools in the future!
Interactive Exhibits as a Gateway to the Past
In the most recent exhibit here at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, Beyond Chicken Soup, there is a large cabinet in the pharmacy section. It is filled with historic medicines and remedies and helps give the feeling of an actual pharmacy. However, this cabinet is more than a creative display case. If you look closely, the bottom drawers invite you to open them and look inside.
The pharmacy cabinet
There, you will find different smells that would have been associated with the pharmacy: one drawer has cardamom, the next has mace. Believe it or not, these spices were once used to treat patients. They are accompanied by instructions in how they were used and what they were thought to treat. This cabinet gives visitors a chance to transport themselves back to the early 20th century pharmacies. Because pharmaceutical schooling was less expensive, less discriminatory, and less time consuming than medical school, it was less complicated to become a pharmacist than a doctor. Nevertheless, these pharmacies became essential centers of community health.
A close up of the spice drawers
This is not the museum’s only interactive exhibit, but it does a unique job of blending the display of collections with the public interaction component. Sliding open the drawers gives the visitor a greater connection to the early 20th century pharmacy that cannot be achieved by a touchscreen questionnaire. As museums move into the future, I worry that we will lose elements like this. While it is important to move forward and keep up with the world around us, it is just as important to remember the past. The digital age is convenient, but the 20th century pharmacy is community. Interactive exhibits like this keep us grounded, and for that I am grateful.
To read more posts by and about interns click HERE.