JMM Insights: Learning By Doing

Posted on April 21st, 2017 by

Want to listen to a pumping heart? Save the day at Ft. McHenry by removing ammunition from a stockade? Turn a pickle into a light bulb?

If you’ve visited JMM in the last few years, you might have done all of the above.  The opportunities to “learn by doing” continue this summer with our next exhibit, Just Married!: Wedding Stories from Jewish Maryland now under development.

As you might expect, this exhibit features wedding gowns, accessories, invitations, and even ketubahs that are more than 150 years old.  But in making this experience accessible to people of all ages and all learning styles it will also contain “interactive” experiences.  Despite the 21st century jargon in the name, interactives in museums date back more than a century.

In 1911, Jewish businessman and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald took his 8 year-old son William to the Deutsches Museum in Munich.  There he saw something new in the museum world – instead of halls exclusively devoted to objects in cases, some of the exhibits had cranks and levers and pulleys.  These devices invited visitors not just to observe the scientific world but to understand it through participation. Rosenwald was so impressed with the impact of this new style of museum experience that he became determined to bring it back to America, to his hometown of Chicago – and so began the story of the Museum of Science and Industry, the nation’s largest science museum.

Over the course of the 20th century, interactives migrated from science museums to children’s museums and by the 1980s to natural history and history museums as well.  These exhibit units are sometimes characterized as “activities for kids,” but it is the experience of museum professionals that interactives receive as much of a workout from adults as children, if only vicariously (i.e. “Johnny, try pulling the crank first and then flipping the lever”).

In approaching the interactives for Just Married!: Wedding Stories from Jewish Maryland, we began, as always, with educational objectives…how do we transform the topic into a vehicle for inspiring in-depth exploration and critical reasoning?  What concepts and activities would fit our exhibit themes, while attracting visitors both young and old?  We came up with a mix of puzzles, tactile experiences, and audio rewards to engage the brain as well as the senses.

The meeple family tree

An important part of interactive planning is beta testing. Over the winter, we tested two of our activities, one on the public and one on the JMM staff.
Our seating chart puzzle, designed by our in-house game maven, involves a set of adorable but in-law challenged meeples [wondering what meeples are? (and no, the singular of “meeples” is not “merson”)].  Our meeple families: the color-coded Pinkerts and Greensteins, Silvermans and Goldbergs needs to be strategically seated to achieve a set of goals for the bride and groom.  In this way we hoped to transform a common problem into a 3-D logic puzzle – both entertaining and thought provoking.

A seating challenge!

We set a simple prototype in the JMM lobby and invited visitors to give it a try.  This gave us insight into what visitors found confusing – such as the fact that unlabeled meeples are indistinguishable (so who could say if cousin Steve was sitting where he should be?) We experimented with affixing tiny labels to the meeples, simplifying the game’s rules and clarifying how to reset the game board for the next player.  All of these small adjustments will contribute to successful interactive – a tool that promotes learning (and fun).

Curator Karen takes a crack at matching photos

Joanna’s match-the-photo puzzle was tested out on the staff in a slightly less formal manner (but with scorekeeping, which always adds to the fun). In this activity, players are asked to match the wedding and anniversary photos of several Maryland couples from various eras.  Our collections include some great images, thanks to generations of Marylanders celebrating the milestone anniversaries of parents and grandparents.  Eleven of our staff and volunteers gave the game a try; there were mixed results, score-wise (and yes, one person did successfully match all eight couples), but everyone found themselves engrossed in the challenge.

Marketing and Development Manager Rachel had a tough time as the inaugural tester

These trial games were invaluable.  In the case of the photos, Joanna learned that the original version – a scattering of sixteen photos from eight couples, with no indication as to which images were wedding and which were anniversary – was much too difficult for anyone who hadn’t been staring at the pictures for three days like she had.  A few tweaks to the set-up improved things considerably. Our goal is to make interactives challenging – but not frustrating, often a difficult “sweet spot” to find.Interactives are just one component in turning a space into an experience.  A strong interactive complements, but does not replace, memorable images or artifacts – but the right tools can transport the visitor from “watcher” to “doer” and give them a sense of personal ownership of an exhibit.

MarvinBlog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert (with assistance from Collections Manager Joanna Church). To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Creating An Activity For Children

Posted on July 21st, 2014 by

One of my favorite things that I’ve done during my internship here has been creating and leading activities for elementary and middle school students. Most of the activities I’ve worked on are connected to The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen  exhibit opening in September, but I’ve worked on two that kids have had a chance to try out.

For the first activity I was tasked to create, my co-intern Arielle and I were given a bunch of cards with Jewish and Christian symbols on them that are usually kept in The Synagogue Speaks exhibit. Since there were multiple cards with each symbol, we decided the best way to teach kids about the symbols on the cards would be to create a matching game.

Museum Education Interns Emma Glaser and Arielle Kaden discussing which cards should be used in the matching game.

Museum Education Interns Emma Glaser and Arielle Kaden discussing which cards should be used in the matching game.

Eight pairs of cards are placed randomly in a 4×4 grid and the kids playing the game have to take turns turning over cards until they’ve found all of the matches. It’s especially fun toward the end of the game when they know where some of the cards are and give advice to their friends on which card to pick. Once they’ve found all of the matches, the staff member with them asks the kids which symbols they think are Jewish and which are Christian and discusses what the symbols are. Some of the symbols used in the game are Shabbat candles, a nativity scene, and a yarmulke. The game works best for groups of five to fifteen kids per grid, so it’s a great opportunity to for kids to have a group discussion and ask questions.

Kids from Hampstead Hill Camp playing the matching game.

Kids from Hampstead Hill Camp playing the matching game.

photo 3

Hard at work!

The other activity I created is based on The Electrified Pickle exhibit. It’s a scavenger hunt that’s aimed at getting the kids interested in the artifacts in the exhibit. The scavenger hunt highlights one interesting artifact from each section of the exhibit. When I was creating it, I picked artifacts that I thought would draw kids’ eyes, either because they were striking, like the samovar used in the exhibit, or because they were something the kids would have used themselves, such as a scooter.

Considering which artifacts to include in the scavenger hunt.

Considering which artifacts to include in the scavenger hunt.

Kids have to find each artifact pictured in the scavenger hunt and figure out what it is. Older children also have to find the answer to a question about each artifact, such as what its function was or when it was used. At the end of the activity, a staff member asks the kids what the answer to each question is.

A girl from Hampstead Hill Camp points out an artifact to her friends.

A girl from Hampstead Hill Camp points out an artifact to her friends.

Three kids from Hampstead Hill Camp check out a scooter they found in the scavenger hunt.

Three kids from Hampstead Hill Camp check out a scooter they found in the scavenger hunt.

I have really enjoyed leading activities for kids here because it is very rewarding to see them enjoying and learning from the exhibits here at the museum, and that is doubly true for the activities that I created.

Emma GlaserA blog post by Education Intern Emma Glaser. To read more posts by interns, click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Of Mah Jongg, Passover and Cultural Adaptation

Posted on March 27th, 2014 by

We are just a few days away from the opening of Project Mah Jongg.   Throughout the last month the team has busily been preparing.  Ilene has been developing activities for kids, Trillion has been working on program concepts and Rachel has been applying her creativity to ways to let people know the exhibit is here.

As for me, I’ve been using my weekends to research a little bit about the history of Jews and board games.  This is a convenient convergence of the needs of the project and my personal interests.  I have been in the museum business 25 years, but I’ve been playing board games – nearly continuously – for at least 55 years; moving from the childhood classics (Candyland, Monopoly, Risk, Stratego) to the 3M games of the 1960s to Baltimore’s own Avalon Hill war games of the 1970s to the rail games of the 1980s and the Eurogames of the 1990s.  I have somewhere around 150 board games in the basement, not enough to make me a collector, but more than enough to have my wife wince every time she sees a new box come through the door.  To prepare for the exhibit I have also learned Mah Jongg (it’s tough work, but someone has to do it).

A staff Mah Jongg lesson.

A staff Mah Jongg lesson.

Since we signed up for the exhibit, I have been intriguing audiences with the question “how did a game for Chinese menbecome a pastime for Jewish women?”  The empirical answer to this question involves Jewish flappers of the 1920s and Jewish charitable fundraising in the 1930s.  But this statement of facts sidesteps a more interesting question about Mah Jongg as an example of cultural adaptation.  Mah Jongg is just one example of many things that both Jews and non-Jews would point to as culturally Jewish that have no theological basis, no connection to Torah or Talmud – e.g. bagels on Sunday morning, Borscht Belt shtick, discount camera supplies.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Abba Eban-narrated PBS series, Heritage: Civilization and the Jews.  The point of the series was that Judaism had not merely survived 4,000 years of contact with other cultural communities, it had actually helped shape (and in turn was shaped by) those contacts.  With the passage of enough time we often loose our awareness of cultural adaptations and assume that our customs are native to our history.  In researching games, I found a fascinating example: dreidel.  Like many of you, I grew up thinking that the game of dreidel was contemporary with the Maccabees.  But with a little on-line searching I learned that the game probably becomes a part of Hanukah in the 17th century.  The dreidel is based on a top called a teetotum and a game known as “put and take” that originated in England in the 1400s.  In the following century, the top moves to Germany where it gains some familiar letters – G for “ganze”, H for “halb”, N for “nicht” and S for “stell ein” meaning “put in”.  It became a popular Christmas game in Germany.  Like “potato latkes” (19th century) and “gift giving” (20th century), dreidel is a piece of the Hanukah celebration borrowed from our neighbors and given new meaning in a Jewish context.

Of course at this time of year my senses are more likely to be excited by the anticipation of matzah kugel than the memory of latkes.  However, Passover too is a great example of the history of cultural adaptation – running the gamut from ancient rites of spring to the Roman custom of free men reclining to the contemporary examples of suffering and depredation often invoked during the recounting of our bondage in Egypt.  I have often looked at the seder as an archeological dig, not only through Jewish history, but through all the cultures we have touched.

So perhaps it is not as unusual as it seems to include Mah Jongg among our adapted treasures.  We have made the meld and now it’s a part of us.

 

Marvin PinkertA blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin, click here.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Next Page »