A dingy basement, a gilded age

Posted on August 24th, 2012 by

A blog post by Summer Intern Kierra Foley.

In the past several weeks, all the interns working in collections have been pulled from their respective areas of expertise (mine being the collections related to the Lloyd Street Synagogue) in order to work collectively on object inventory – a huge undertaking that occurs every three years, during which every object housed in this museum is located and documented.

As the intern known for her marked high heel penchant, it came as no surprise to my colleagues that I took a particular interest in the textiles. Particularly, the women’s clothing.

I have always held the belief that much can be discerned about the social and cultural history of a time period by a close examination of the time period’s fashion. In the boxes of this basement, there lies a quick snapshot of history through its frills (literally – badum tish!).

The first garment that really seized my attention was this gilded age petticoat, an article that once belonged to Caroline Wiesenfeld Rosenfield.

The extravagance and ideological crossfires of this era are evident in the fashion choices made by its women; it was after all, a time of stifling Victorian sensibilities, a fin-de-siècle sense of lawlessness, and the rise of a new industrial working class –all doused in shimmering gilt. This petticoat was more than likely one of the last of its kind. Petticoats of such a fashion (bell-shaped) were falling out of fashion by the late nineteenth century, in favor of more bustled and ruffled styles. A new image of more voluptuous and highly pronounced femininity strangely arose out of the repressed sexuality of the Victorian era, arguably setting the ultimate momentum for the suffrage movement that shortly followed. This petticoat is a small snapshot of an ideological movement in American history, one that championed tradition on the dawn of a changing social landscape.

And here is an example of the height of this new liberal and prosperous landscape – a flapper dress from the roaring 20’s. We all know (especially those of us that attended the JMM’s Purim party this past spring!) about the free spirit of flappers. “Looser” morals are personified here in the looser bodice, the shorter hemlines, and the freer usage of color. Women were gaining independence, in most every realm, and the lively spirit of dress, as seen in this beautiful JMM gown, embodied this.

And here, this 1940s portrait of Miriam Epstein Lansburgh is exemplary of my favorite style of dress – American war era. The simple elegance shows the ideological move back towards “traditional” American values and the desire to embody radiant sophistication. The war brought a revived surge of patriotism, bolstering the morale lost in the Great Depression. Women were again able to dabble in the frivolous realm of fashion – and convey the patriotic spirit of American traditionalism while doing so. Visions of white picket fences and nuclear families seized the nation, and elegant femininity and grace seized females. As a woman who always hopes to emulate Grace Kelly (if only palely), I find the dress and demeanor of this photograph stunning.

In short, among the wonderland of boxes, Saks Fifth Avenue has nothing on the Jewish Museum of Maryland’s basement.

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Athenian Judaism…in Baltimore?

Posted on June 21st, 2012 by

A blog post by Kierra Foley, LSS Archaeology Intern

Hulking Doric columns and a stately pale façade cast shadows upon the sleepy downtown street, an imposing and authoritative presence in this otherwise aesthetically lackluster area. The building looks suited for housing a body of people pulsing with the commanding spirit of Athenian democracy, not necessarily the spirit of modern Western religious thought. Briefly, I scratch my head – if worship were to occur within this structure’s walls, it seems as though it would be of a pagan variety (specifically Greco-Roman!), but certainly not anything rooted in the Hebrew Bible, like the Jewish and Catholic congregations that have found homes here in years past. Even more likely, it looks to be an administrative or governmental building, a place that has little to do with worship altogether.

The Lloyd Street Synagogue

Over the past few weeks and for the coming weeks, this architecturally deceptive structure – the Lloyd Street Synagogue (or LSS) – has come to be my home. I’m both a Near Eastern Studies major at Johns Hopkins University and the JMM’s LSS Archaeology intern. For those of you who closely follow the oh-so-riveting lives of JMM interns, this is not your first time hearing from me, as I was the Collections intern this past winter. My task is to process everything within the synagogue, including objects recovered from recent archaeological excavations. Naturally, I spend a great deal of time within the synagogue, rifling through the endless of web of objects that call the synagogue home.

The wild intern in its natural habitat, tagged and ready to accession!

However, the outside of the structure has piqued my interest more than anything that lies within the building. Why would one make a synagogue so…stately? The physicality of Greco-Roman art has lost its spiritual integrity over the past few millennia, instead representing intellectual progress and highly structured administrative systems. This phenomenon occurs especially in American architecture, which from its outset aimed to embody the democratic ideals previously founded in Grecian antiquity. The Neoclassicism rampant in our nation’s capital is exemplary of this trend; this is simply an extension of the Revolutionary War era movement to borrow from Grecian antiquity in both scholasticism and politics – a movement pioneered in order to ensure a flourishing democratic state. Americans have adopted Classical architecture in order to establish visual harmony and organization, creating a statement of august power, a far cry from the spirituality Westerners so often achieve with the Gothic architectural principles of “height and light”. The B’nai Israel synagogue’s plan seems to full heartedly embrace the common modern practice of illustrating divine mystery via breathtaking architecture. Contrastingly, the Lloyd Street Synagogue makes no such effort.

 

The façade of the B’nai Israel synagogue combines both Moorish and Gothic elements to make an engaging exterior and stunning interior.

So, if not a communication of the sublime, what was the intended affect of the synagogue’s external aesthetic? It was constructed in 1845, the height of Neoclassicism, in the Greek Revival style. A clear disdain for Roman features can be observed in this building, rendering it Greek Revival in the purest form of the term. It was designed by Robert Cary Long Jr., Baltimore’s first native and trained architect. In many ways, Long was an architectural Renaissance man, wearing hats that ranged from the Greek Revival we examine here, to high Gothicism, to Egyptian Revival. A learned man, it’s more than likely that Long and the founders of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation (the LSS’s first congregation who oversaw its construction) had a pointed intent.

Long himself, from the museum’s collections (CP 3.2010.001). Courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society.

Though far from an expert on such matters, from my time in the synagogue and my access to its inner workings and rich history, I have several theories developed as to why the synagogue was constructed in this way. The first reason being that the congregation wanted to remain inconspicuous, thus disguising themselves in a veil of Neoclassicism – an unlikely façade for worship. At this time, Jewish culture and religion was not met by gentiles with the utmost pleasure, and Anti-Semitism ran rampant through the streets of downtownBaltimore. With a wholly “American” covering for Jewish activity, the congregation could remain largely undetected by other intolerant Baltimoreans. In similar vein, the majority of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation was comprised of German immigrants.

Rabbi Abraham Rice, the first spiritual leader of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and the first ordained rabbi in the U.S.

The attempt to “Americanize” the German mindset of the congregation was seen in its transition from strictly Orthodox to Reform in the early 1870s, as a campaign to modernize traditional behaviors was observable in new phenomena like the abolition of gender stratified seating in the April of 1973. The first step to modernization was taken in 1845 with the construction of the LSS, as it was a distant cry from all things German and a direct embrace of all things American. Still wholly Jewish, the building was also of the same nature as the American capital, beautifully merging both Judaism and the American spirit. Neoclassicism also may have been required to create an air of organization. The Baltimore Hebrew Congregation was one of the first established inAmerica, and a need to make the building an authoritative presence is valid, as this could potentially stimulate an air of reliability and productivity.

However, this is all postulation from the mind of an intern. Perhaps if we could go back in time and ask Long himself, he’d answer, “Oh, it just looked lovely!”

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To accession, or not to accession?

Posted on January 25th, 2012 by

A blog post by Kierra Foley, Collections Wintern ‘12

As the JMM’s new Collections Wintern, I’ve spent a great deal of time in the depths of the basement – a land of innumerable surprises, to say the least. In recent weeks, I have found myself lost in a maze of uber organized mishegas, wandering amongst shelf after shelf (all of which are lined with massive amounts of, well, stuff). Lost in the catacombs of an American history buff’s dreams, I’ve been living at the mercy of domino effect discoveries. Each accession’s story leads me to another, revealing quite an entangled web of histories woven between these storage shelves.

Jobi and I hanging out with some kosher wine bottles in one of the Collections storage rooms.

Now, to give you some background about myself, I am a sophomore at Johns Hopkins University, majoring in Near Eastern Studies (with a focus on Egyptian archaeology and philology) and minoring in Jewish Studies and Classics.  I’m no stranger to collections, as I also work with the collections at the Johns Hopkins Archaeological Museum. However, I was a complete and total stranger to working with artifacts like some of the ones I’ve processed in the past three weeks.

Why on Earth am I housing a…soy… sauce…packet? Thoughts in this vein have frequently crossed my mind.

True story from my third day here at the JMM. (K2011.008.005a-b)

Though, the more I explore this basement, the more a cohesive picture of Jewish culture in Maryland becomes apparent to me. I’ve become familiar with more than several families through the material culture they’ve gifted to us. The more time I spend in this basement, the more both individual personalities and collective cultural identities are becoming exceedingly evident. For this, I’ve come to realize that it’s foolish to dismiss accessioning a soy sauce packet. That packet is a very small (albeit, widely representational) piece of American Jewish culture and its connection to a Maryland family gives it a precious individual story. It’s been humbling to work with these particular collections; I’ve come to learn the value of modern historical preservation for both “scientific” anthropological documentation and attaining a deeper personal understanding of local color and heritage. In many ways, the work I’ve done here is both academic and highly personal, something that I cannot necessarily say of the antiquated artifacts that I’ve previously cataloged.

One seemingly innocuous object that revealed a much deeper and significantly more layered story is this small water fowl adorned box.

Riveting, no? (2011.004.004)

Now, as exciting as golden water fowl may be, they are not why I found this box remarkable. This box belonged to the Beissinger family, and it contained a plethora of letters and photographs pertaining directly to the life of Eric Beissinger. Upon opening the box, I was overwhelmed by a sea of German words in a tight arching script. Though my German is admittedly sub-par, I was still able to learn quite a lot about the life of this individual. Eric left war-torn Nazi Germany and his family in 1938 in favor of American soil at the astoundingly young age of twelve. His parents and brother were able to join later in time, but what is truly interesting is what is revealed about Eric’s life during this time through his letter correspondences with his German family. Eric continued to pursue his education, ultimately graduating from Johns Hopkins University in 1952.

French may be the language of romantic love, but these letters prove German is the language of platonic love. (2011.004)

Naturally, I grew up reading textbooks and novels about Nazi Germany, but such an intimate view into the mind of a refugee (especially one that ultimately graduated from the very school which I attend!) was never before offered to me. To learn about this world from the pen of a twelve-year-old boy is an irreplaceable opportunity, providing a much more authentic cultural picture than a textbook ever could. The accessions given to us by Eric’s wife, Claire, are invaluable for the first person picture they paint through a myriad of letters, postcards, trinkets, and photographs. Curiosity sparked by these accessions led me to explore the 2004 Lives Lost, Lives Found exhibition files (an exhibition about the lives of German Jewish refugees that found refuge in Baltimore from 1933 – 1945). Eric’s story exposed me to about twenty similar ones and I found myself totally immersed in these as well. The individuals can be woven together to reveal a larger and more powerful story – just as the artifacts in this basement show a greater picture of Jewish history.

As is probably evident by this post, I’m learning vast amounts of priceless information about history, collections, and anthropology. However, perhaps the most important lesson I’ve gleaned thus far is “never judge a box by its water fowl”.

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