Gaining Perspective from 1,000 Miles Away

Posted on October 1st, 2014 by

St. Paul

A beautiful shot of the St. Paul Skyline!

A week before Rosh Hashonah, Education Director Ilene Dackman-Alon and I attended the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) conference in St. Paul, Minnesota.  The trip had many virtues – a chance to see some truly innovative museums, a chance to renew and develop acquaintances with colleagues and collaborators, and perhaps, most important, a chance to think about the directions we are taking at JMM through the lens of innovations happening elsewhere in the country.


What a great conference poster – does anyone know the artist?

The tone for the conference was set by keynoter, Garrison Keillor.  He peppered his folksy (and irreverent) stories of the history of the state with observations about the museum enterprise.  Paraphrasing Tip O’Neill, he observed that “all history is local” and that those who try to sweep human experience into great global generalizations are probably sharing as much fiction as truth.  “The 60s may have been about drug, sex, and rock ‘n roll in parts of New York or San Francisco”, he noted, “but in small town Minnesota the 60s was all about moving into the middle class.”  I reflected on our Mendes Cohen exhibit at JMM and thought, actually “all history is biography” and every human life has the potential to illuminate its times.

Feature exhibit at the Minnesota History Center:  Toys of the 50s, 60s and 70s.

Feature exhibit at the Minnesota History Center:
Toys of the 50s, 60s and 70s.

I attended 7 workshops and presentations during my two and a half days in St. Paul.  These included:

“Creating Connections:  Integrating STEM Learning into History Exhibitions and Programs” – a collaboration of the Science Museum of Minnesota and the Conner Prairie historic village outside Indianapolis.  Conner Prairie recently took a big leap outside its comfort zone, training its history docents to facilitate visitor-driven exploration of historic technologies.  We worked in groups to develop model exhibits.  Ilene’s group was turning architecture into an engineering lesson.  My group worked on letting visitors “put together” a 1910 electric car.

Workshop at the Science Museum of Minnesota.

Workshop at the Science Museum of Minnesota.

Directors Breakfast – turned out to be a perfect complement to the session above.  The focus of the breakfast was “how do we build a political coalition strong enough to promote history in the way that scientists promote STEM?”  They had some interesting ideas and I expect that I will participate in future forums on this topic.

My favorite artifact - We definitely need something like this in our collection.

My favorite artifact – We definitely need something like this in our collection.

“Blurred Lines:  Museum as Community Center” – This session looked at four specific program innovations at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle (outdoor film festival, evening socials for young adults, yoga in the museum and after school tech clubs).  They talked about successes and failures, but even more interesting, the process of assessing successes and failures.  I think that as we increase our community outreach there is much to be learned from the experience of others.

“Seeing the Forest: A National Perspective on History Organizations” – this was a straightforward (and slightly depressing) set of research results from NEA and AASLH.  It told a story that was not terribly surprising – after holding their own through the first electronic revolution (the Internet of the 1990s and early 2000s), museums were now experiencing a significant decline in attendance during the period 2005 to 2013 (the era of the smart phone and social media) – actually all physical contact with the arts – attending concerts, art galleries, dance performances as well as participating in creative arts activities are declining.  The only uptick in “arts” creation was a boom in photography (perhaps those smart phones).  Of course, these are averages – and any individual institution can figure out a way to buck the trend.

Paul, Babe, me and Mendes at Minnesota History Center. One way to get people to recognize the front of the museum!

Paul, Babe, me and Mendes at Minnesota History Center. One way to get people to recognize the front of the museum!

“Blink” – Local Baltimore/DC consulting group QM2 was invited by the Massachusetts historic properties trust to perform an activity inspired by Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink.  They were given 36 hours at each of three historic sites to assess and suggest new directions for reawakening public interest and growing attendance.  The idea was to not get bogged down in all the impediments of “we’ve tried that before” or “management won’t let us do that” and make constructive snap judgments.  It seemed like an interesting experiment.

“Talking about Religion in History Museums” – Three speakers looked at the challenges that the topic of religion generates, not only in public museums, but even in religious-sponsored institutions.  There was discussion of why most museums are willing to host exhibits on religious practice but few are willing to have any discussion of religious belief.  Even small differences of opinion on belief can easily escalate into institution-threatening conflict.   The panelists had some great examples.

“Support Young Children, Grow Future Audiences” – our own Ilene was joined by speakers from the Smithsonian’s Center on Early Learning, a museum in San Antonio and the still-to-be-built National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall.  The topic was how history museums could relate to our youngest visitors (ages 3 to 7).  Call me prejudiced, but I thought Ilene’s presentation was outstanding and really reminded me that we can hold our own even with much larger institutions when it comes to educational innovation.

Mill City Museum: The ruins of a flour mill destroyed by fire are transformed into a first-rate history experience.

Mill City Museum: The ruins of a flour mill destroyed by fire are transformed into a first-rate history experience.

Living History Actress plays 1940s "Anne Pillsbury" at Mill City Museum

Living History Actress plays 1940s “Anne Pillsbury” at Mill City Museum

Lest you think I spent all my time in sessions, some of the highlights of the trip are documented in the photos below.  I had the chance to explore the beautiful Minnesota State Capitol building, the first major project of architect Cass Gilbert, now under restoration.  I went back to the Minnesota History Center, on everyone’s short list of the best history museums in the US and also had the chance to visit their newest project, the Mill City Museum.  In 1991 an abandoned flour mill, once the largest in the world, was nearly destroyed by fire.  Instead of tearing the building down the folks at MNHS turned into an extension site and, in my opinion, perhaps the finest single topic museums ever.  Combining clever exhibit design (an elevator ride that seems to owe a lot to MSI’s Coal Mine and Disney’s Tower of Terror), extensive research, live performance, great use of artifacts and the ruins of the building and some great exhibit filmmaking – I would rate this as a “must see”, even if you never thought you had an interest in making flour.

Detail from the ceiling of the Minnesota State Assembly - it was breathtaking.

Detail from the ceiling of the Minnesota State Assembly – it was breathtaking.

And of course I brought my trusty Flat Mendes with me!

And of course I brought my trusty Flat Mendes with me!

If I had to describe the conference in one word, it would be: “inspiring”.  I am glad I could take you along for a little bit of the ride.

Marvin PinkertA blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE. Interested in knowing more about AASLH? Check out their website, or follow them on Twitter!

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

Getting to Know Mendes

Posted on August 21st, 2014 by

MC_Exhibit Assets_v2

Exhibit Opens September 14th!

Mendes I. Cohen was born in Richmond VA in 1796, the son of a German Jewish father and an English Jewish mother.  His family moved to Baltimore in 1807 and lived until 1879.  He was a witness to many events in history both at home and abroad and a participant in a surprising number of transformational moments.  Here are a dozen highlights:


1. Mendes is one of six Jewish defenders of Ft. McHenry during the Battle of Baltimore.  When one bomb falls into the powder magazine rather than “bursting in air”, Mendes and two other artillerymen are sent in to rescue the ammunition.  (To Mendes’ great fortune, the bomb was a dud)


2. The Cohen family starts out in the lottery business.  Mendes and his brother are sent to Norfolk to sell DC lottery tickets (federal lottery tickets).  Virginia authorities arrest the Cohens for selling tickets without the authority of the state of Virginia.  The case of Cohens v. Virginia goes to the Supreme Court where Chief Justice Marshall technically rules against the Cohens, but establishes the principle that the Court has standing in resolving differences between state and federal authority.


3. The Cohen family is very active in the campaign for “The Maryland Jew Bill”.  Finally passed in 1826, the bill allows people to serve on juries, serve in the militia and serve in public office without taking an oath to the New Testament.  Mendes will later provide assistance to English Jews fighting for the same liberties in the 1830s.


4. Thanks to the success of his family’s banking enterprise, Mendes Cohen is able to “retire” at 33 and start an extensive tour of Europe and the Middle East.  His first stop is England where he combines business with pleasure, dining with Nathan Rothschild and striking up a friendship.


5. Mendes arrives at the barricades in Paris just two weeks after the Student Revolt (think “Les Miserables”) and reports some disappointment in having just missed the action.


6. When in Rome, Mendes is invited to the installation of the new pope (Pope Gregory XVI).  He writes a letter dedicated to the thorny question of whether a Jewish American democrat should kiss the feet of the pope.


7.  Mendes decides to take up Egyptology.  He sails down the Nile in a boat with an American flag of his own design, acquiring rare antiquities.  The artifacts he collects are later purchased by Johns Hopkins University and are today the core of their archeology collection.


8. Mendes heads for Palestine, becoming the first American to ever acquire a firman (permit) from the Ottoman sultan to visit the Holy Land.  Mendes spends his time trying to trace places mentioned in biblical passages.


9. After returning to the US, Mendes becomes a special assistant to Governor Veazey.  He is asked to serve as Maryland’s representative at the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837.


10. Mendes becomes one of the early directors of the B&O Railroad and Baltimore’s first Jewish charity, the Hebrew Benevolent Society.  The Cohen brothers are very involved in the development of Baltimore’s first and only Sephardic synagogue in the 1850s.


11. Mendes is elected to the State House of Delegates in 1846.  He votes for leniency in the sentencing of debtors.  But as a loyal Democrat he also votes to condemn Pennsylvania for helping Maryland’s slaves escape to freedom.


12. Mendes spent his final years near his home in the Mount Vernon neighborhood of Baltimore (Mendes lived with his mother and then his brothers for his entire life).  He spent his last years in the 1870s recounting tales of his youth to passersby, intensely proud of his adventures.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland


Posted on July 24th, 2014 by

18th-century portrait of Maimonides, from the Thesaurus antiquitatum sacrarum by Blaisio Ugolino.

18th-century portrait of Maimonides, from the Thesaurus antiquitatum sacrarum by Blaisio Ugolino.

Born:  1136, Cordoba, Spain

Died:  December 12, 1204, Fustat, Egypt

Parents: Maimon

Education:  University of Al Karaouine

Children:  Abraham ben Moses ben Maimon

Siblings:  David ben Maimon (and several unnamed female relatives)

-Sherwin B. Nuland, Maimonides. Nextbook, Schocken, New York, 2005.

Maimonides sculpture, Cordoba, Spain

Maimonides sculpture, Cordoba, Spain

“Why is it, in fact, so many Jews have become doctors”?

During the Middle Ages and Renaissance the legend of the Jewish doctor’s special skill is still current today . . . along-side the legend of the profession’s attractiveness to young Jews as a career. Intertwined with myth, the legendary relationship between the Jew and the Art of Healing continues to evoke response . . .


As a young child, Moses was an indifferent and uncaring student despite his father’s determined efforts. Unresponsive to Maimon’s encouragement, cajoling and finally his ire and punishment Moses refused to learn until his father called him a person of the lowest order, like his very common place mother. He became angry and ran away.  Moses would hide in, as the legend goes, in the Women’s Section of the Synagogue where no one would think to look for him. He would lament to God praying for some relief from the failure that some must have attributed to his having been the offspring of an unlearned butcher’s daughter.

When Moses began studying, his father, the elder Maimon, had a vast library in Cordoba which Moses enjoyed looking at. Being a precocious boy, Moses learned Jewish Law, philosophy, rhetoric, astronomy, science, and mathematics. He poured over his father’s medical books. He was taught by his father and tutors as well after choosing to study.

On fleeing Cordoba, teachers were found among the fleeing Jews to educate Moses as best they could while on the journey.

Moses was able to absorb large quantities of information and remember it without notes. Once read, the contents of entire books seem to have remained in his memory. As for so many intellectually gifted students of the medieval period, the goal was set for him to master all knowledge. Other details of Moses’ early life is not certain and has fallen into myth.

The Almohad Caliphate map

The Almohad Caliphate map

Because of a change of leadership in Spain and Fez, Morocco, in 1148 by the Almohads, a violent fundamentalist fanatical Muslim group of Berbers, the Maimon family moved to Fez hoping for some relief from the persecution and mayhem.  Moses began writing during this period which became a regular part of his life until his death. At about age 20, he began writing a form of the Mishnah, called the Gemara, produced as a work the common man could understand. He wrote under restless and dangerous travel.

Writing in Arabic using Hebrew letters, he wrote a book called the Siraj, “Luminous Light.” The book was meant to elucidate concepts that might be abstruse to the common man.


Moses’  brother, David Maimon, went into commerce selling gems. David was Moses’ younger brother who, because he was so successful, encouraged Moses to continue studying and subsidized his study. David was also responsible for several aunts and cousins. The gem business became so successful, David began travelling farther and farther away from to sell his wares.

When Moses’ brother died in a shipwreck in the Indian Ocean, the family fortune went down with him. David left Moses his widow and a little daughter plus the other relatives to care for. At age 30, Moses went into a severe depression due to the loss of David and the heavy responsibility that fell onto his shoulders. Upon coming out of the depression, he looked around to see what he could do to earn money to overcome his financial problems. He tried to lecture and teach on the subject of depression and wrote a treatise on the subject. Because he couldn’t make enough money to solve his problems from his lecturing and teaching, he had turn to other means.

He didn’t want to teach Torah for money because this was a sacred trust for him. He looked around for something to do. He, therefore, turned to thoughts of practicing medicine. He remembered “studying his father, Maimon’s, medical texts, he was fascinated by disease and the ways in which the body yielded to illness and then attempts to rally against it.”

Moses read the Greek masters Hippocrates and Galen and was familiar with the works of those who came after them: Aretaeus, Paul of Aegina, and Oribasius. He studied herbs from the great herbalist and medical botanist, Dioscorides from the first century C.E. He also knew the biological theories of Aristotle as though he had performed the experiments and observations himself. Being the scholar he was, he studied more recent treatises of the leading physicians who wrote in Arabic including Rabbi Isaac Judaeus and three Muslim physicians and the man who had been his friend, Averroes from Cordoba, Spain. Moses studied the great Persian physicians who were two generations before him. Moses learned medicine from books not bedside practice and from years of discussions with his or his father’s friends.

He was aware of the high fees physicians could be paid and he became a doctor. He brought to medicine the advantages of long years of study, virtually photographic memory, wide knowledge of philosophy and science and the rational approach to evidence they had taught him; the wisdom and compassion for God’s creatures that were so much a part of his Jewish heritage and his personal faith.

His years of being a healer elevated him to professional prominence and he was invited to treat patients at court.

– Maimonides for Kids, Islamic Medicine

Maimonides wrote a book about how to stay healthy and not get sick in the first place. He realized that people in cities got sick from drinking water contaminated by sewage. Dysentery and cholera germs seeped into the water supply. His advice was to try to live in a city surrounded by forests and outside water. He encouraged people to keep clean, eat good food, get plenty of fresh air and exercise. According to Maimonides, depressed people were more likely to get sick. His antidote was to tell his patients to listen to music, look at paintings, and take pleasant walks. If you got sick, eat chicken soup. For snake bites use tourniquets, burning out the poison,  and rest. He like Aristotle and other physicians of the day, didn’t completely understand the properties of herbal medicines. He also didn’t know that some physical problems caused depression.

He,like Aristotle, believed scientific experiment and logical thought were the way to learn what caused disease.

– Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel                     

A typical day for Maimonides was to go to the Sultan of Cairo’s palace to care for anyone in the household who became sick. Then upon returning home in the afternoon, his anti-chamber was filled with patients of all social class and strata of the surrounding area. His first activity upon reaching home was to wash his hands and eat a light meal, the only meal he ate in a 24 hour period.


Maimonides became a physician only after his brother David died in a capsized ship. Caring for the family fell upon him alone. After casting around for ideas on a way to make a living, he remembered his father’s medical books and how much he enjoyed reading them as a child. He began to read everything he could on available Islamic medicine, Aristotle and Galen of Pergamon and he studied herbal medicines by the great men of the day. Because he retained whole pages and books, he was able to recall what he needed to treat a patient. Because there weren’t very many cures in the 12th century, he concentrated on preventive medicine which he was very successful at spreading his name and skills far and wide.

Why did Jews go into medicine in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance?  Medicine was available to them and their Talmudic and Torah education gave them special skills for learning medicine and then practicing it. Medicine was lucrative as a way to support their families and their Talmudic studies. There is still a mystique about the Jewish doctor among the populations of many countries. The hey-day for Jewish physicians seems to be passing but others will take their place.

Barbara IsraelA blog post by Exhibitions Intern Barbara Israelson. To read more posts from interns, click HERE. To read more about Maimonides, check out his wikipedia article HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

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