Confronting “Difficult Knowledge” with Eastern State Penitentiary

Posted on May 31st, 2018 by

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

In early May, the management team of the Jewish Museum of Maryland took a trip to Philadelphia.

We spent time at the Eastern State Penitentiary, where I was surprised to find a restored synagogue. As interesting as that space was, it was not the most memorable I found at Eastern State Pen. For the most impact, I have to turn to what ESP staff calls “the big graph” and the small exhibit space they’ve carved out for Prisons Today.

Before I get to my experience of the graph and Prisons Today, let me back up to February of this year, when a number of the JMM managers attended the Council of American Jewish Museums conference in Washington, DC. (Read about our experiences here and here.) The conference theme was “Responsibility and Empowerment: A Civic Role for Jewish Museums,” and sessions explored the idea of museums as sites of conscience and as taking a stand. Rather than the “Dragnet” vision of museums of my youth (“just the facts, ma’am”), presenters at this CAJM conference invited Museums to take on the role of inspiring action—inspiring ‘upstanders’ to use the language of one of the featured institutions, the Take A Stand Center at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. Other featured sites included President Lincoln’s Cottage with their commitment to combatting contemporary slavery as a part of Lincoln’s legacy and…wait for it…Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP).

According to the representatives of ESP I heard at CAJM, the sprawling historic prison has served as a site for so-called “ruin porn” and haunted house experiences for most of its time as a tourist destination.

However, in recent years, staff and board have decided that they have a responsibility to use their platform to share a truth that is not always comfortable. They first developed the graph (see my picture below) a few years ago. It confronts the visitor with the reality of the current state of mass incarceration in America.

The “front” of the graph maps the surge in prison population over the past three decades. The side compares US prison population to other nations’ (spoiler: we outpace every single country in the world with the number of citizens we hold as prisoners).

The back of the graph shows the racial disparities among prison populations.

The graph is difficult to be with. The data was not surprising to me; I’ve read Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking work The New Jim Crow, and I have spent a lot of time learning and thinking about the systemic nature of the racial disparities in our criminal justice system. The graph was still difficult for me to be with.

Our tour guide at ESP that day, a member of ESP’s education staff named Sam, told us that their docents are all trained in facilitating difficult conversations.

She said the staff talks regularly about helping people to work through the “learning crisis” that is triggered by confronting “difficult knowledge.” In fact, ESP provides continuing education sessions to the whole staff about the process.

Our confrontation with “difficult knowledge” had only just started with the big graph. From the outdoor graph, we stepped into a well-appointed contemporary exhibition gallery for Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration, and were immediately met by this visually striking depiction of the reality of contemporary mass incarceration.

The visuals were backed up by strong language on the panels: “Mass Incarceration Isn’t Working.”

At every turn, this exhibit uses facts and striking visuals to drive home that idea. Interactives in the space invite people to think about their own experiences with lawbreaking, with ethical choices, and with the timeline of a single individual’s life.

One interactive features hand-written statements of people confessing to criminal behavior. Visitors are asked to guess which ones were written by people in prison and which by other museum visitors. (The answers are surprising.)

At another interactive, visitors are invited to “send a postcard to your future self.” You write three (email) notes, and the Museum ensures they are delivered in 2 months, 1 year and 3 years. They ask visitors to think about how the criminal justice system may have changed by the time the postcards arrive.

I found myself both saddened and energized by the Prisons Today exhibit. Saddened because of the “difficult knowledge” that our justice system is decidedly unjust, and energized by the forthrightness and unblinking way in which the museum had engaged the question. I did not find the exhibit preachy or self-righteous, but informative and thoughtful. Best of all, it used the strengths of a museum-learning experience—the IRL-ness of it all—to make clear both the societal reality of mass incarceration and the personal realities of individuals who are affected by mass incarceration.

I highly recommend a visit. The staff at ESP have taken on the task of helping their visitors through the learning crises of difficult knowledge, and they have risen to the challenge.

Their space is challenging—in the best possible way—without feeling judgmental. Even if a visit isn’t possible for you, you can take a virtual tour of the exhibit through the magic of the internet. This virtual tour is made available on the ESP website.

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Un-“tie”-ing Houdini

Posted on May 30th, 2018 by

A blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. You can read more posts by Marvin here.

When does an exhibit really begin?  Is it the day it opens to the public? Or the day the press comes in for a preview? Or the minute the installation is finished – hopefully, at least an hour before the events above.  Well for me, there is often a special moment when I have my first occasion to wear my “exhibit tie.”

Yes, I have had exhibit ties for several JMM projects.

Rachel Kassman made me the chicken tie for Beyond Chicken Soup, the matzah tie is for special tours of The Synagogue Speaks and the Houdini tie is my most recent acquisition, worn for the first time last weekend at my first formal presentation in conjunction with the upcoming Houdini exhibit.  I sported this tie at Balticon last weekend where I made a presentation entitled “Fraud! Harry Houdini and the Spiritualists.”

I probably don’t have to explain that my tie was barely noticed in comparison to the creative attire of many Balticon participants – after all it’s not like I was sprouting antenna or wearing eye shadow – I forgot to take a selfie, so you’ll just have to take my word for this.

I was scheduled to speak as part of Balticon’s “skeptic track”, a portion of the convention devoted to the “science” in science fiction.  My talk followed a speaker from the SETI Institute, so we essentially went from communication beyond the stars to communication beyond the grave.

My presentation was focused on the question of why an individual who spent most of his career creating illusions would have chosen to spend the last few years of his life carrying on a crusade against mediums and fakirs.

Following the flow of the upcoming exhibit I traced the transformation of Ehrich Weiss from impoverished child of an immigrant rabbi, to struggling performer and on to international acclaim as Harry Houdini.  The exhibit will touch on Houdini’s exposure of spiritualist frauds, but by using some contemporary sources I was able to go a bit deeper in my talk, covering the techniques Houdini used to unmask his targets.

I found Arthur Moses’ Houdini Speaks Out and David Jaher’s The Witch of Lime Street to be particularly helpful (and if you want to learn more about Houdini’s adventures with the spiritualists come hear David talk at JMM on July 1).  I speculated on whether Houdini’s Jewish upbringing could have been a factor in his skepticism about Spiritualism and offered a brief account of some of history of Jewish attitudes about the afterlife that might have had an impact.

In the end I think this was one knot I couldn’t completely untie (and perhaps neither could Houdini).  Still, it felt like a great warm up for what’s coming next month.  And if you want to see me in the tie you will just have to come to one of our opening events – the members-only preview on June 21 or the Magic of Jonestown Festival on June 24.

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Performance Counts: The Book of Joseph

Posted on May 11th, 2018 by

Our monthly look at JMM “by the numbers” comes to you this week from Director of Collections and Exhibits, Joanna Church. To read more posts by Joanna click HERE.

Our lobby exhibit The Book of Joseph: Giving Voice to the Hollander Family may take up only a little over sixty square feet of space in the orientation space, but nonetheless it requires many hours to research, write, and install even small displays like this one.

I had the privilege of looking over the primary source material, reading the book based on the family story, watching the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre’s production of the play, and talking to Richard Hollander, whose family’s story is told through all these different media.

In 1939, Joseph Hollander and his wife left Poland just days before the Germans invaded, and after an arduous journey through Europe, they ended up – accidentally – in New York. While they were fighting to keep from being deported, Joseph’s family in Cracow wrote hundreds of letters to him about the worsening conditions under which they were suffering. Despite his work to secure them safe passage, and later attempts – after the letters stopped in 1942 – to find them, Joseph never learned the fate of his family. Nor did he tell the full story to his son Richard, instead carefully storing all the letters, photos, and other memories away in a briefcase.

Richard only discovered the case, and the stories it contained, after his father’s death.

Some years later, he delved into the material, had the letters translated, and with scholar Christopher Browning wrote the book Every Day Lasts a Year. Playwright Karen Hartman then turned the family’s story into the play “The Book of Joseph,” first produced by the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, and enjoying its East Coast premiere at the Everyman Theatre in Baltimore.

In order to narrow this history – relating the lives of 14 people, over the course of six years – down into something that could be conveyed in a small exhibition, the full story had to be known.

To that end, I cataloged 157 letters and postcards written between 1940 and 1942 by the Hollanders in Poland to Joseph Hollander in the U.S.; matched those letters up to the translations in the book; and selected letters that could best illustrate important elements of the family’s story, even to those visitors unable to read German or Polish.

Even though each letter tells its own small piece of the story, only 23 of those letters ended up in the exhibit itself. (If you haven’t had the chance to read the English translations of the full collection in the book Every Day Lasts a Year, I strongly encourage you to do so.)

In addition to the exhibit itself, I and our Marketing Manager, Rachel Kassman, have been collecting and developing additional content to augment the story, including an interview with playwright Karen Hartman and Joseph Hollander, blog posts highlighting individual letters not included in the exhibit, and news coverage related to both the exhibit and the play. You can check out that bonus content here.

To celebrate the opening of the exhibit, three actors from Everyman Theatre’s upcoming production of “The Book of Joseph,” along with the play’s director, and Richard Hollander himself, joined us at the JMM on April 26th for a special reading of two scenes, and a question-and-answer session with the audience. 89 people attended this unique opportunity to compare two very different ways of experiencing this poignant story: through the original handwritten letters themselves, and through spoken, dramatic interpretation.

The Book of Joseph: Giving Voice to the Hollander Family is on view at the Museum through June 3, 2018. “The Book of Joseph” is now open at Everyman Theatre and runs through June 10th.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

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