JMM Insights: Dross into Gold

Posted on November 18th, 2016 by

In the middle ages, alchemists sought out the philosopher’s stone that could turn base metal into gold.  They never found it.  But in 19th and 20th century America, entrepreneurs, mainly poor immigrants of Jewish or Italian heritage, found a way to turn waste materials into productive assets – in the process, not only transforming metal, rag and rubber, but also their own lives and their own communities.

In October 2018 the Jewish Museum of Maryland will launch a major national traveling exhibit called American Alchemy: Junk to Scrap to Recycling that will for the first time bring the largely untold history of this industry to a wider public.

Bales of rags. Shapiro Company, Baltimore, Maryland, 1942

Bales of rags. Shapiro Company, Baltimore, Maryland, 1942

We have been laying the groundwork for this project for nearly a year (in fact its origins go back to ideas generated in 2008).  We have been researching photos and artifacts, assembling an exhibit team, developing budgets and funding plans.  But it was just yesterday that the project had its formal launch as we invited leaders of scrap businesses from across the region to convene at JMM.  Neal Shapiro, former president of Cambridge Iron and Metal here in Baltimore, and a consultant on the project helped assemble the gathering.  We took them through Beyond Chicken Soup:  Jews and Medicine in America – a project that has much in common with our new venture:

> a similar scale and blend of “real things” and interactive experiences;

> a paired effort to explore both history and technology (and for the American Alchemy exhibit we will also add the art of recycling);

> an exhibition that works equally well for school groups and general visitors.

After the brief tour, I described our concept – it has a scope that stretches from an ad for scrap brass and copper by Paul Revere to the first car shredders to the latest metal analyzer guns.  I also explained that while it would inevitably have a lot to say about the Jewish community (it’s estimated that just a few decades ago 80% of all scrap CEOs were Jewish), this particular exhibit was about the whole story of the industry – and would include people from all ethnic backgrounds who made the transformation from push carts to global enterprises possible.

An automobile graveyard outside Baltimore, Maryland, August 1941. Courtesy Library of Congress.

An automobile graveyard outside Baltimore, Maryland, August 1941. Courtesy Library of Congress.

Next, we swapped stories.   We learned about businesses with unlikely sites (e.g. Jersey Shores, PA), unlikely artifacts (e.g. a terrorist bombed Israeli bus – it was saved, not scrapped) and unlikely misfortunes (e.g. what happens when you drop a large battery in downtown DC).  But more importantly we learned that we were “family” – as some of the senior members of the group recounted their memories of the parents and grandparents of their assembled “competitors.”  Even I got to tell a few stories about the scrap metal and rag businesses owned by my family – and lessons learned that carry over to my work in museums.

So many stories around the room

So many stories around the room

On Monday we take the next step in our project’s development – a team meeting in New York, with our curator, Jill Vexler (also grew up in a scrap business household) and our designer, Alchemy Studio led by Wayne LaBar.  We’ll be taking this huge topic and compressing it to 2,000 square feet – even a bigger trick than compressing a car into a bundle of metal with a hydraulic press!

If you are reading this newsletter and happen to have photos or documents related to the scrap industry, please contact Deborah Cardin at dcardin@jewishmuseummd.com.  If you are just interested in learning more about the exhibit and staying in the loop as our plans progress feel free to contact either Deborah or me.

-Marvin Pinkert

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




When the Collections Are Not What They Seem

Posted on November 2nd, 2016 by

Researching a new exhibit can have unexpected side benefits, including the opportunity to learn even more about our collections.  The “more product, less process” method of archival work means we do our best to get at least minimal access to our archival collections as quickly as possible, but it also means that researchers – including museum staff ourselves – need to dig a little deeper when our records tell us the collection contains something of interest.  This can be frustrating, in a world where so much content is instantly available at your fingertips… but it’s also very fun.  (And, of course, our further investigations are recorded, so the next person has a slightly easier task.)

As we prepare for next summer’s Just Married! exhibit, it’s been my happy job to delve into the archives and take a closer look at everything wedding-related.  Whenever our previous catalogers noted a “bridal book,” “wedding sermon,” or “engagement card” calling out for more specific description, there am I, like a superhero researcher… okay, that metaphor doesn’t really work.  But nevertheless, thanks to the heavy lifting of the initial catalogers, I know where to look for the goodies, and I can swoop in and finish the job.

There have been lots of great discoveries in this process, and a few disappointments as well.  Here’s one of the latter: a fun piece in itself, but not quite what I was expecting…

Outside:

JMM 1993.63.24

JMM 1993.63.24

Inside:

JMM 1993.62.24

Announcement card, late 1930s. Donated by Sadie B. Feldman, JMM 1993.63.24

Fake-out! It’s not a delightful wedding announcement card, as it appears at first glance; it’s delightful advertisement for the work of Baltimore artist and designer Samson Feldman (1900-1983). So, in a sense, this ad did exactly its job: it drew my attention – promising one thing, then, surprise! it turned out to be something else – and it was memorable, since it was the first thing I thought of when it came time to write this blog.  The work of Samson Feldman (1900-1983) will likely be featured in Just Married!, along with several other Maryland artists who produced ketubahs, invitations, and the like.  But this particular piece is not quite what I was hoping for.

Alos, don’t forget – we want your wedding invitations and photos! Check out our Marrying Maryland” page for more info.

JoannaA blog post by Collections Manager Joanna Church. To read more posts by Joanna click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




A Trip to the Scrap Yard

Posted on September 21st, 2016 by

The Jewish Museum of Maryland’s newest original exhibition project, American Alchemy: From Junk to Scrap to Recycling officially launched its second phase of development with a convening of our project team, including new project curator, Jill Vexler, and our designers from Alchemy Studios. The exhibition which explores the history of Jewish involvement in the scrap industry also will reflect the experiences of non-Jews and covers a wide swath of history from the 18th-21st centuries. We are currently in the process of collecting stories and artifacts that reflect the unique nature of these businesses, many of which have remained in the same families for generations.

As you can see from this map, the scrap industry has a large national presence and our exhibit team is conducting research in many other cities beyond Baltimore.

As you can see from this map, the scrap industry has a large national presence and our exhibit team is conducting research in many other cities beyond Baltimore.

What better way to inspire our team than a visit to a local scrap yard so we could get a first-hand look at the materials, technology and human capital that are necessary in order to transform one person’s junk into another person’s treasure. So we drove to south Baltimore to visit David Simon at Baltimore Scrap Corp. David regaled us with stories of life in the scrap industry and described the evolution of his family’s business which got its start in 1916.

The highlight of our visit was a guided tour of the yard where we saw huge mounds of metal object castaways and flattened cars that were awaiting their turn in the gigantic shredder (sadly, we could not see the shredder in action as it is used during night hours in order to save electricity costs).

The highlight of our visit was a guided tour of the yard where we saw huge mounds of metal object castaways and flattened cars that were awaiting their turn in the gigantic shredder (sadly, we could not see the shredder in action as it is used during night hours in order to save electricity costs).

We were all impressed by the sheer scale of materials that were piled high in mounds, not to mention the speed at which materials are completely transformed into reusable parts. We all left feeling energized and excited about our work on this project.

Baltimore Scrap Corp.

Baltimore Scrap Corp.

The project also got an important boost with news we received last week that the exhibit was the recipient of a highly competitive federal grant award from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. American Alchemy opens at the JMM in Fall 2018.

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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