Small, But Mighty

Posted on November 9th, 2018 by

This month’s edition of Performance Counts is from Marketing Manager Rachel Kassman. To read more posts from Rachel, click here. To read past editions of Performance Counts, click here.

What can you do in less than 60 square feet of vertical space? Turns out, quite a lot.

By now, I’m sure you’ve all spent countless hours exploring our Voices of Lombard Street exhibit in the Shoshana S. and Jerome Cardin Exhibition Gallery, touring our two historic synagogues and sharing Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini, located in the Samson, Rosetta and Sadie B. Feldman Exhibition Gallery, with your friends and family (if not, what are you waiting for? Plan your visit now!). Today I want to turn your attention to a slightly more diminutive – but no less exciting – space: the lobby niche.

Measuring just 80 inches wide and 107 inches tall at its peak, this small space can pack a powerful punch (though we do cheat and get an extra few feet with those side walls!). We have used this space to expand on stories presented in the larger exhibit galleries, as we did for Paul Simon: Words and Music with Marvin’s exhibit An American Tune, which explored Jewish connections to folk rock; and for Inescapable, with A Little Magic from the Collections, highlighting both new and old accessions in the Museum collections with a particularly magical bent. In February we’ll be preparing the space to accompany the Jewish Refugees in Shanghai exhibit, on loan from the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.

The size and flexibility of this space also makes it perfect for displays tied to special events and programs. Most recently you may remember seeing The Book of Joseph: Giving Voice to the Hollander Family, which was on display in conjunction with the play’s run at Everyman Theatre. In 2016, during the run of Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews and Medicine in America, we were lucky enough to host a special luncheon for the alumnae of the Sinai Nursing program and used the niche for a display of Sinai nurse-related material from our collections.

We have also created displays on the Jews of Shanghai for the 2014 Herbert H. and Irma B. Risch Memorial Program on Immigration;  a feature on artist Saul Bernstein when we debuted the updated and recast living history character; and Raise Your Glass, highlighting items from the collections to compliment a Father’s Day program on the Jewish heritage of American whiskey.

Our newest lobby display, which will be on view starting this Sunday, November 11th, is a companion to our special Veteran’s Day program on the Jewish Legion. Generously supported by a gift from the Carole and Hanan Sibel Family Foundation, this display will highlight the various Jewish Legion-related materials in our collections, which will be further discussed at 1:00pm by our archivist Lorie Rombro.

We have also used this space to give our interns a chance to apply their skills and share what they’ve learned over the course of their internship. Most recently we had Just Desserts: Baking and Jewish Identity, created by 2018 summer intern Cara Bennet. 2015 summer intern Falicia Eddy created Recognizing and Responding to Injustice, which focused on using the Holocaust as a teaching tool to combat intolerance as a companion to our annual Summer Teachers Institute.

This space is not the only small gem we can use to tell special stories outside the bounds of our major exhibit offerings (although it is the most consistently filled). In the basement of the Lloyd Street Synagogue there is a single case that has been used to explore Jewish holidays like Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah, and Shavuot using materials from our collections and is often curated by interns or museum educators.

In the Anne Adalman Goodwin Memorial Library you can often find a small case featuring an item from the collection – perhaps a special menorah around Hanukkah, a Seder plate around Passover, or a funky clock that caught Joanna’s eye down in the stacks this past May.  During the final week of our Just Married! Wedding Stories of Jewish Maryland exhibit, we expanded a little farther into the library to share some special wedding “extras” that we just couldn’t bear not to share, like vintage wedding shoes and additional dresses from the collections.

These small spaces, and others, allow us to be experimental, responsive, and creative. In 2014 we created a tribute to actress Vivienne Shub in light of her passing. In 2015, in response to the unrest and uprising in Baltimore we created In Every Generation, exploring materials in the collections related to protest, public campaigning, and activism in the community.

So keep your eyes on our niches, on our cases tucked in to cozy corners, on those inspiring blank walls – you never know what new stories will pop up!

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My First Seance

Posted on November 1st, 2018 by

A blog post by JMM Marketing Manager Rachel Kassman. To read more posts from Rachel, click here.

Last night the Jewish Museum of Maryland played host to the 91st Official Houdini Séance. It was definitely an evening to remember. In case you weren’t able to join us (or follow along with our live tweeting of the event, #HoudiniSéance2018), I thought I’d share a little of the experience with you – this was my first séance and I didn’t know what to expect!

First, a little history on the séance, courtesy of the directors William Radner and Thomas Boldt:

“Harry Houdini died at Grace Hospital in Detroit on Halloween 1926 from complications of acute appendicitis. He had told his wife, Bessie Houdini—and close friend, confidant and mentalist Joe Dunninger—that if he died, he would make every effort to communicate with the living and established a secret code to guarantee proof if indeed he was successful. Every year since his death, an official séance was held to see if he could come across the veil and prove the spiritual afterlife existed.

Final Houdini séance in 1936. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

After 10 years, Bess Houdini declared the séance efforts over; however, Houdini’s brother Hardeen took up the torch and continued the tradition for many more years. There was never a sign from Houdini. When Hardeen passed away, his protégé and magic collector, Sidney Radner, was directed to continue the séance and did so every year until his death at 91 years of age in 2011. He was accompanied by his good friend Tom Boldt for many years in this endeavor. Now Sid’s son, Bill Radner, along with Tom, continue the tradition.”

The evening began with food, drinks (including one of our signature “magical” cocktails, mixed and served by yours truly!), and a pair of roving magicians who demonstrated a variety of card tricks and rope escapes for members of the audience. My favorite part of the evening was the presentations by our Houdini experts!

Here, Houdini collector Ken Trombley shows off a piece from his collection – a 1925 telegram to the Associated Press debunking a slate-writing medium.

“Can the living speak to the dead?” Collector Arthur Moses shares about Houdini’s deep desire to contact loved ones on the other side, referencing a pair of programs produced by Houdini. Both Ken and Arthur emphasized that while Houdini sincerely hoped to speak with those who had passed on, he was equally fierce in debunking those he felt were preying on the grieving and naïve.

Houdini in Handcuffs: expert Fred Pittella’s interest was born from reading “The Man Who Walked Through Walls.” In the age before internet, researching Houdini and handcuffs involved a lot of foot work – Fred found many of the pieces he used to learn about handcuffs and locking mechanisms hunting through flea markets and thrift stores. He shared that Houdini’s handcuffs (and handcuffs of the time in general) were more massive and complicated than those in use today!

As part of his “challenges,” Houdini asked to keep any handcuffs he escaped from! This allowed him to build up a large collection for both study and use in his performances. He also created his own sets of handcuffs for his challenges – 5 different ones in fact, including a “Russian” handcuff, a “Hungarian” handcuff, and the most famous “Mirror” handcuff.

His worst nightmare, losing the title of King of Handcuffs, loomed large when was presented with a pair of doctored handcuffs – they had been stuffed with buckshot, rendering the locking mechanism unusable. The handcuffs could be closed, but could not be opened, even with the key.

Houdini had to be cut out of them – in future, he required all challenge cuffs to be demonstrated to both close AND open before placing them on his wrists. Fortunately, Houdini’s reputation as King of Handcuffs survived this incident, and reports of the time seemed to side with him, calling the event a “cruel trick.”

Why is the Séance held on Halloween? It’s the day Houdini died. Bill Radner, séance director, told us that Houdini was not expected to survive that long by medical professionals, but he held out because he wanted to make it to the 31st.

Bill also presented about the official “Séance Handcuffs.” To have a real séance, you need to have an item from the person you are trying to contact. This pair of handcuffs was used at the first séance in 1948 – Houdini said he would open them from beyond the grave. These handcuffs were considered “unpickable” and are unlike any handcuff you’ll see today – they are the “mirror” design.

The above is a photo of the actual “Séance Handcuffs” used in the séance, but we have a fantastic selection of other handcuffs, keys, lock picks, and other escape tools used by Houdini on display in Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini.

But one of the coolest items shared this evening might be Houdini’s adjustable key! He made molds of the keys for challenge cuffs and use this adjustable key to match it. This object, shared by Bill, is the only known adjustable key used by Houdini.

Finally, the “Inner Circle” (those serving as participants in the séance) and the medium took their seats around the table. We were lucky enough to be joined by Debbie Hardeen, Houdini’s own great-grandniece – this was her first time participating in the Official Houdini Séance!

Alas, Houdini did not make contact with us this year, but we did have fun trying. And no night dedicated to Houdini can end without some seriously magical entertainment! Harley Newman, escape artist, performed a lively act to close out the night.

We were thrilled to host this fantastic group of Houdini experts and enthusiasts – here we’ve got the whole crew posed inside our Inescapable exhibit. Good luck next year!

I, Harry, and the JMM hope you all had a wonderful Halloween and come visit us soon.

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Learning About Me, Museum-goer

Posted on October 25th, 2018 by

A blog post by Deputy Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.

Earlier this year, my family received the invitation to my first cousin’s October wedding in Snowmass, Colorado. When we discussed the possible trip, my husband and I decided to make a vacation out of it. Why fly all that way and only stay a few days? we asked ourselves. We extended the wedding weekend into an 8-day, Colorado vacation.

And what is a vacation without museums?

We visited several museums on our trip, and while I had fascinating experiences and left with very real memories, one of the most fascinating things about my museum visits on this trip was what I learned about myself as a museum-goer.

On our first day in Colorado, we spent time in the mile-high city, Denver. I’d heard great things about Denver’s history museum History Colorado, so it was our first stop.

History Colorado lived up to its reputation. On the first floor of permanent exhibits, they create an environment of a frontier-town Keota, Colorado. My 6-year-old daughter had fun “driving” a model T, retrieving eggs from a hen house and selling them in the general store for cash she then used to buy dry goods. My husband had a great time editing her photo to fit into the sample photo from the Keota Yearbook. (She was less excited about the end result. Please don’t tell her I posted it onto the internet…)

I enjoyed the Keota exhibition. I noted the use of the glass front cases with shelves all the way to the floor, and smiled as the museum educators replenished the eggs in the hen-house for kids to find. I read a few panels, and was interested by what I learned, but for the most part, I was not completely absorbed by any of the experiences.

We moved upstairs to additional exhibits. In their “Colorado Stories” core exhibit, History Colorado brings together a series of smaller exhibits that become vignettes to the visitor. Unlike the Keota exhibit, I found myself completely absorbed by some (Mountain Haven: Lincoln Hills, 1925-1965”) even as I breezed by others.

And then I got to Zoom In: The Centennial State in 100 Objects. This exhibit was a big white box, with 100 objects, labeled on platforms. Each label was numbered, and they were presented in order, roughly chronologically, from 1 to 100. There is no environment except the museum (though they do project landscape images on the back wall). There was no music, no interactives. It was not an immersive experience like the one downstairs, no props to create the environment, like the ones I’ve written about before.

Friends, I was transfixed.

As a museum-goer, that presentation grabbed me, and wouldn’t let me go. I needed to read every label, in order. The curators worked hard to make their 100 objects representative, so there were Native American artifacts juxtaposed against white settlers’ material culture which were adjacent to the personal effects of members of the Chinese-American community who came to Colorado en masse to work on the railroad. There were objects representative of everyday lives and others that carried the weight of historical significance. I found the juxtaposition arresting and fascinating.

I read every word in that gallery.

Somewhere in the 40s, there were visitors ahead of me who were not on pace with my reading. I got annoyed that they were in my way and I had to read out of order.

I laughed out loud at the story of the ceremonial silver railroad spike that was pawned by its delivery people and had to be re-acquired by its intended recipient (he was given a regular railroad spike wrapped in paper to make it look like it was silver in the ceremony).

I was captivated by the “Despondency” vase, created to express the feeling of living with tuberculosis by an artist who moved to Colorado to treat his tuberculosis. 

In the 1980s war veteran’s shawl from the Ute people, I saw resonance with artifacts in our collection. Jews in the 19th century, like American Indians of the twentieth century, integrated symbols of the U.S. into their ritual objects to assert their co-equal identities as Americans and as Jewish or Ute. (Note that this Ute example of integrating identities through clothing is particularly interesting to me as I work with Joanna on developing the original exhibition, Fashion Statement.)

I even enjoyed the curators’ call for comment—they asked visitors to suggest the 101st object for their exhibit.

After I left the Zoom In exhibit (long after my family had moved on), we came upon Denver A to Z. It was a fun exhibit where I learned a bit more about the city I was visiting, but I found it’s layout disorienting. It wasn’t in alphabetical order, and that left me feeling like I was out of sorts.

Visiting the Keota exhibit, Zoom In, and Denver A to Z in the same trip, a pattern in my museum-going preferences became plain. In an immersive experience, I let the environment wash over me. I didn’t feel the need to read every text or interact with every artifact. I passed through the environment and waited for stories to grab me. In an exhibit like Zoom In, on the other hand, where the environment is nothing other than a gallery, I felt the need to understand every artifact, to absorb every label. I sought out the stories behind every one of those 100 objects.

The contrast is an interesting insight into the kind of museum-goer I am. What kind of museum-goer are you? Do you know? What presentation of story is more compelling to you? What kind is easier for you to learn? Maybe you’ll pay a bit more attention next time you visit a new exhibit to how you react to the environment, the label copy, and the artifacts. All of these questions come into play as curators, registrars, exhibit designers and other staff work to put together exhibits. I’m having a great time watching the interface between what museums create and how visitors interact with that creation—both at JMM and at museums I visit around the region and the country.

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