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Finding History in the Collections

Posted on July 26th, 2019 by

Blog post by JMM intern Ariella Shua. To read more posts from JMM interns, past and present, click here.


I’m not a crazy history buff – I have to hear dates and names multiple times before I can remember them. But I’ve always liked knowing how old something is, or who used to use an item. It’s especially cool when these details connect an object to history we already know.

While working at the JMM, I’ve made a few such discoveries. I wasn’t searching for any particular connection. I was just recording the facts about a person, place, or time. The importance of these items to me, to Jewish history, or even to American history were bonuses that came with the facts I was searching for.

The first moment of historical significance came on my first day at the JMM. As we went on our first tour of the Lloyd Street Synagogue, we were taught its story. The synagogue is the third oldest Jewish house of worship in Maryland, and the third oldest still standing in the US. I’d already known that the JMM had historic objects in their possession. I had no idea that one of those objects was a building. Even better, I was excited to know that I’d now been in two of the top three oldest synagogues in the US. I had fallen asleep in the oldest, Touro Synagogue, a few years before (long story, but I hope to go back and see it for real in the future).

Inside the museum, I spend a lot of time in the “Voices of Lombard Street” exhibit. It provides an immersive walkthrough “tour” of Lombard Street, one of Jonestown’s Jewish neighborhoods, from the early 1900s. When schools and camps visit, I usually guide the kids through the sewing machine activity.

They “sew” together creations on a replica 1914 Singer sewing machine. I’ve used a sewing machine before, but it looks nothing like this one – the Singer on display requires pushing a heavy foot pedal in order to operate.

My assumption was that kids would never recognize the machine. But during multiple tour groups, kids tell me about their own experiences, sewing on more modern machines, or seeing old-fashioned sewing machines in their grandmother’s houses. It never occurred to me that an object that seems so obsolete to me is still relevant in many people’s lives, even in a different way.

Most of the historical connections I’ve made have been in the last few weeks. I am working on a project to discover the historical significance of Windsor Hills, a Baltimore neighborhood which large numbers of Jews once called home. While researching, I’ve come across the names of former residents who I know. I don’t know them personally – all I know is their names. Hutzler, Hollander, and Wolman will all be immediately familiar to any other Hopkins student. They all have buildings or rooms named after them at the school. I never expected to run into them at the JMM, yet here they are.

I’m spending a lot of time on PastPerfect, the JMM’s collections database, while I do my Windsor Hills research. Some of the connections I’ve found point to the darker history that was once in Jonestown. While doing an innocent search for ice cream, I came across multiple results for Hendler Ice Cream Company. Most of the records, photos, and ads that showed up in JMM collections are cheery ice cream pictures.


One, though, stood out for its offensive imagery. A 1925 poster for a frozen watermelon snack instantly registered in my eyes as racist. Yet in the 1920s, such an ad was perfectly acceptable – a sign of how much the times have changed.

Fortunately, most of my PastPerfect searches have resulted in records that are much less offensive. During my Windsor Hills research, I’ve even found some former residents who have made their mark on American history.

Jacob Beser, for instance, shows up again and again in the JMM’s collections.

I’d never heard of him before, but I quickly learned that he was the only crew member to participate in both of the Enola Gay’s missions: bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As it turned out, he and his family lived in Windsor Hills, and he was involved in the local Jewish community. Now, some of his former possessions are in the JMM’s collections, telling their history to those who want to find out more.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

A Look at JMM Collections Management Systems

Posted on March 4th, 2013 by


For decades museums, including the Jewish Museum of Maryland, used a bound ledger to record each donation. A separate ledger was used to track each incoming and outgoing loan. Later, we moved to a large three ring binder with a hand-written spreadsheet of information.


Individual cards were then written for each individual object, with separate cards for donors and each subject, all filed accordingly into the card catalog. Sorting and storing objects and photographs according to subject which was tremendously helpful for the registrar and/or archivist responsible for finding answers to research questions, or preparing for exhibition – and much easier than memorizing thousands of accession numbers!

How research was done before Wikipedia!

How research was done before Wikipedia!

The JMM moved to its first automated collections management system (CMS) in the 1990s, but by early 2000 it was apparent that the DOS-based program was ill-suited for our diverse collections. Cataloging archival documents in a system designed for three-dimensional objects is truly like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.

square peg

There are a number of CMS to choose from so it was important that we found a system that worked for our needs without selling us on features that we would never use. PastPerfect was perfect for us! Geared toward smaller museums, PastPerfect offered a database with separate (color coded!) modules for objects, archives, photographs, library books, and membership which is ideal for our history-based collection.  With the AASLH member discount, we couldn’t beat the price. The program is intuitive and easy to learn. Almost everyone on staff –as well as our interns and some volunteers—uses PastPerfect for research, programs, memberships, mailings, and of course, collections management . As the administrator, I can control access levels so that records can’t be accidentally deleted. Although we can attach 999 images to each record, my one complaint is that we can only attach them one at a time.

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Jobi trains the 2012 education and exhibition interns on the research functions of PastPerfect.

Jobi trains the 2012 education and exhibition interns on the research functions of PastPerfect.

And we just can’t say enough about their customer service–friendly, knowledgeable AND helpful!  While Brian, Ginger, Jannessa, and the gang have answered hundreds of questions for us over the years, the JMM has also been able to provide PastPerfect with some valuable feedback. For example, when we told PastPerfect that we really wanted to make the collections accessible to researchers, they developed PastPerfect on-line.

Darn archivist won’t let me bring my mug into the library, even if it is from PastPerfect!

Darn archivist won’t let me bring my mug into the library, even if it is from PastPerfect!

PastPerfect is constantly updating and improving their product, providing a complete explanation of how the changes will affect our work. The museum will be upgrading to version 5.0 in the next few months.  Some of us are a little nervous about navigating the new interface, but the promise of enhanced membership and development features have us very excited. Collections management systems in general are on-going, evolutionary process.  It should also be fascinating to see what the future brings and how “primitive” today’s technology seems 20 years from now.


Posted in jewish museum of maryland

JMM: The Salon

Posted on January 19th, 2011 by

In the past, the JMM has held salon events.  You know, floor to ceiling stacked with arts, coffee and croissants, people speaking about the artwork in a meaningful way.  But yesterday the lobby of our Herbert Bearman Campus became a very different type of salon.  A hair salon.

Enter Photo Archivist & Develop Coordinator Rachel Kassman.  She had hair.  She hated her hair.  She asked Education & Program Coordinator Elena Rosemond-Hoerr to cut her hair.  Because Elena has been cutting her own bangs for a while and has yet to cut them so short she couldn’t come to work.

So around 5 yesterday Rachel donned a number of children’s smocks, sat on a bench in the lobby, and got a fantastic new hair cut.

Rachel, pre hair-cut

First, I made Rachel pose for a “before” shot.  Because we’re always looking for fresh blog content.


Then, I applied the prechool size children’s smocks.  To protect her fancy shirt.

Then the cutting began.

That smile on her face is nerves, by the way.

The back

The back of her head, during the cut.

The finished product!

And finally, the finished product!  A lovely JMM style haircut for a lovely JMM employee!  What can we say, we wear many hats over here.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

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