Report from Atlanta

Posted on May 4th, 2015 by

I can still remember the odd feeling in 1968 watching the split screen of the events inside and outside the Democratic Convention in Chicago.  I was 16 at the time.  The events on TV were made a bit stranger since a few of my friends and relatives were in the streets that day (just 12 miles from my home) being tear-gassed and beaten while I was under my mother’s orders not to leave the house.

All those feelings from 1968 came back to me as I sat helplessly in my hotel room at the AAM museum conference in Atlanta watching parts of my adopted city burn. The conference theme was “the social value of museums inspiring change” – all I could think was “we have a lot of work ahead.”

I am writing this blog post about what was on “the other half of my screen” – the half that was doing my darndest to focus on ideas that might be useful to either adopt, adapt or avoid at JMM.

In conjunction with the conference I had a chance to visit four Atlanta museums I had not seen before and revisit the Atlanta History Center. Let me share a few personal observations about these five institutions.

  1. This was my second trip to the Atlanta History Center which is undergoing a major renovation. But their “unique” Civil War exhibit is still open to the public – if you want to know the Confederacy’s “strategy to win the war in 1865”, this is definitely the place to come. It also offered a fabulous dessert bar as part of a progressive dinner (sorry, no picture) – I lost that battle too!  But here is a photo of me with a 1929 Hudson Super Six Sedan that made me feel like I was on the set of Downton Abbey – the grounds of the History Center are among the most beautiful settings for a museum that I’ve ever seen.

    1929 Hudson Super Six Sedan

    1929 Hudson Super Six Sedan

  2. The William Breman Jewish Heritage and Holocaust Museum. The museum has five major spaces on the ground floor (as well as quite a large surface parking lot). Two spaces are for performance/activities:  a small theater and a much larger auditorium (The Selig Center) which appears to be a shared use space with Atlanta’s Jewish Federation.  There is a permanent Holocaust gallery – heavily photo based; a temporary exhibit gallery (about the size of ours – currently featuring a tribute to Maurice Sendak); and a core exhibit, organized as a chronological journey through major artifacts from the collection.  I found the most interesting part of this gallery was the invitation at its end for visitor’s to offer their ideas of “missing topics” … I’ll be interested in finding out what kind of response rate they are getting to this offer.

    What stories did we miss?

    What stories did we miss?

  3. The Center for Puppetry Arts is located directly across the street from the Breman Museum. My sense is that this makes a great combination for attracting both family audiences and school groups – that can easily see both museums in the same day. Puppetry Arts (an inspiration of the Henson family kids) is in the midst of a significant expansion.  For now, I was most impressed with the diversity of artifacts on display representing everything from Balinese shadow puppets to Julie Taymor’s Lion King costumes to Pigs in Space.  Label copy and curatorial work is rather homespun but it is a space with lots of potential.

    Puppets!

    Puppets!

  4. Georgia Aquarium has an incredible array of animals and environments. Each tank is so full of biodiversity that it seems to scream – “you will never figure out everything that’s here.” The space makes use of lots of artificial environments and even fantasy to stimulate popular interest.  It is bright, bold and perhaps a bit corporate.

    Georgia Aquarium

    Georgia Aquarium

  5. College Football Hall of Fame – Atlanta’s newest attraction – makes the Aquarium seem sedate. There is absolutely no line here between corporate sponsorship, product placement and exhibit content… even the logo has ad type in it. Your first on-screen guide in the exhibit is the cow from the Chick-fil-a ad campaign.  The flashing screens and interactives are numerous and overlapping.  The signature technology is a badge you are given that “personalizes” your visit by recognizing your favorite college team and customizing the interactives to match the colors, mascot, song etc. of your alma mater (more exciting I think for someone who went to Michigan than to Brandeis).   And perhaps the bottom line is that this is a museum for people who would normally not be caught dead in a museum – and that may be an astute assessment of the market.

    College Football Hall of Fame

    College Football Hall of Fame

Google Glass

Google Glass

Speaking of technology – a lot of what’s new in the museum world can be found on the Museum Expo floor.  It is always fun trying out the latest gadgets.  Above you see me as a newbie to Google Glass.  The demonstration was designed to show that you could add a layer of content to a piece of art or old photograph on a very cool display.  My personal impression – the best part was being able to say “look at me wearing this great piece of technology”.  The content was underwhelming and who really thinks they want to have content sitting in their field of view – between you and the historic object.  Most of us want to get closer to something authentic, not have a layer that pushes us away.

Virtual Reality

Virtual Reality

My assessment of this very heavy set of immersive virtual reality glasses is not much better.  The content in this case was a first person perspective of Rosa Parks on the bus – as the bus driver and then a policeman get in your face.  The glasses allow you to look at the people behind you when you are being accosted – not sure that this is an “enhancement”.  Like the Google Glass these units are also a significant problem to maintain, as (for hygiene reasons) they need to be cleaned after every use.

But I don’t want you to think I am a complete Luddite.  There were two more modest pieces of hardware/software that really got me thinking.  The first were small display cases with thin LED projection surfaces on the front.  This case would allow you to “animate” the label copy superimposed on an object in a protected case.  No special glasses required and the price of the case is very competitive with other types of protective structures.  Two companies had prototypes on display.

The most impressive technology I saw was this simple (and almost free) telepresence system: http://www.venturerobotics.com/

Look at this for a moment and think of what it might mean for providing visitors access to spaces with physical barriers like the Lloyd Street Synagogue or environments with security concerns like vault space or access for global visitors.  Definitely going to begin a conversation here.  The expo provided proof, if any was needed, that the value of a gizmo is not to be found in its sleekness, complexity or price tag but rather the quality of the thought process about how it will be used.

By now you may be wondering – did you just spend your time visiting museums, touring technologies and making new contacts for JMM.  Well mostly… but I did spend some time at panels and in sessions that inspired fresh thinking about our work at JMM.  Especially useful were sessions on marketing, membership and recent psychographic studies of museum visitors’ interests.  I also attended a session entitled “Missouri Burning” about the response of the Missouri State Historical Society in St. Louis to the events in neighboring Ferguson.  If I had to describe this conference in one word – I think I would pick “timely.”

It was a week I needed some perspective and AAM gave me a full year’s supply.

~Marvin

Marvin PinkertA blog post by Museum Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Just Discovered:  The Plotnick Diamond

Posted on April 1st, 2015 by

Album Cover

Album Cover

Yes, this is an April Fool’s Day headline.  But it’s also true.  At a recent JMM staff meeting the conversation turned to classic Jewish comedy sketches.  I learned that morning that many of the younger members of the team were unfamiliar with the Plotnick Diamond and the Grammy-nominated comedy album “You Don’t Have to Be Jewish” which is celebrating it’s 50th anniversary this year.

The album was the product of a golden age of comedy records in the early 1960s.  The first Grammy award for best (spoken) comedy album is in 1960 and went to actor/comedian Shelley Berman.  In these years, Jewish performers dominated nominations for this category – including the 1960 albums “Sick Humor” by Lenny Bruce, “Look Forward in Anger” by Mort Sahl, the 1961 album “The 2000 Year Old Man” and the 1962 album “An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May”.  And on the comedy musical side of the ledger were the classic albums by Tom Leher and Allen Sherman.

Jewish Comedic Performers

Jewish Comedic Performers

But even in this glittering array of talent, “You Don’t Have to Be Jewish” stands out for it’s quick memorable punch lines delivered with exceptional skill by great voice talents.  I noticed one reviewer on line referred to this album as “the I ching of Jewish humor”, and who am I to dispute that.  Performers on the album include Jack Gilford (the Hollywood blacklisted actor who many kids of my generation associate with Cracker Jack), Lou Jacobi, Arlene Golonka and the sonorous voice of Kraft Music Hall announcer Frank Gallop.

The album was the brainchild of the writing team of Bob Booker and George Foster.  At the time they made “You Don’t Have to Be Jewish” they had already won a Grammy award for the comedy album The First Family – an amazing, good humored send-up of the Kennedy administration – a milestone in political comedy.

Album Cover

Album Cover

In 2013, Seinfeld star, Jason Alexander turned the album (and its sequel) into a theater production in Los Angeles.  Thanks to that production I was able to find an LA Jewish Journal interview with Bob Booker (at age 87).

I learned that while his collaborator was Jewish, Booker himself was not.  He reports that growing up in Miami he was influenced by all the Jewish comedians who would come to local clubs and theaters (Henny Youngman, Milton Berle, and Don Rickles among others).  His success in crafting the Jewish humor on this album is the real proof that “you don’t have to be Jewish” to appreciate the ironic wit that emerges from Jewish culture.

As for the Plotnick Diamond, I did find a source for a partial script of the routine.  Click HERE and scroll down the page.  But do yourself a favor and download the audio from iTunes instead.  The routine “The Diamond” is much funnier with the actors.

Scrolling down this Jewish magazine website I did see a few jokes that really made me groan.  Here is the most painful of the bunch:

It seems a group of leading medical people have published data that indicates that seder participants should NOT partake of both chopped liver and charoses. It is indicated that this combination can lead to Charoses of the Liver.

Happy April Fool’s Day!

 

Marvin PinkertA blog post by Museum Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Aliens Under the Influence

Posted on March 4th, 2015 by

Regular readers of my blog posts have already figured out that I am something of a geek – board games, Presidential trivia, 19th century letters and Japanese Studies, but my ultimate geek credential is my passion for science fiction.

 Leonard Nimoy at the 2011 Phoenix Comicon in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

Leonard Nimoy at the 2011 Phoenix Comicon in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

So it won’t surprise you to learn that I spent some time this last weekend sifting through dozens of final tributes to the actor Leonard Nimoy.  I was trying to answer the question – what made me feel such a profound sense of loss at this actors passing.

It occurred to me that two people died last Friday – Nimoy and Mr. Spock, the half-Vulcan/half-human character he inhabited.  As it turns out, many of us had already witnessed Spock’s death decades ago – but we also saw his resurrection.  With all respect to Zachary Quinto, this time, though, the real Spock is not coming back.

Publicity photo of Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner as Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk from the television program Star Trek, 1968. Courtesy of NBC Television.

Publicity photo of Leonard Nimoy and William Shatner as Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk from the television program Star Trek, 1968. Courtesy of NBC Television.

For me, the character of Spock was a figure of profound hope and a projection of Jewish values into a distant future.  By Jewish values, I don’t just refer to the Cohain blessing gesture that Nimoy conveyed to Spock.  It runs much deeper – many of the obituaries called it the “dignity” that Nimoy brought to the character, making him much more than an actor with pointy ears.  Like a distinguished rabbi, Spock speaks with a level of gravitas unavailable to his compatriots.   He is consistently the voice for thoughtfulness and respect for other cultures in a universe still populated by humans and other creatures whose “shoot first” approach is the norm.

Most importantly, Spock is the only alien (at least half-alien) on the original Enterprise and this is where I sense that Spock and Nimoy, the child of “aliens” from Iziaslav, Ukraine, actually meet.  So much of Spock’s story is about overcoming racial and cultural prejudice to become an accepted member of the crew.   It is hard not to see at least a piece of the Jewish experience played out in the development of Spock

Spock was of course, not the only alien under Jewish influence.  Even on Star Trek, Jewish motifs are introduced when we meet the Rozhenkos from Minsk, adoptive parents of the Klingon, Worf and of Worf’s son, Alexander Rozhenko.  Worf is perhaps more a Maccabi than a melamed, but his familial relationships as both son and parent have at least a touch of Jewish resonance.

Worf and his son Alexander on the Enterprise. Via flickr user bootsartemis.

Worf and his son Alexander on the Enterprise. Via flickr user bootsartemis.

Armin Shimerman, who plays the Ferengi, Quark in Star Trek Deep Space 9, is another actor whose Jewish roots are evident in his portrayal of a complex character.  I am trying to be very careful in what I say here, because there is a lot of strong opinion on the Internet that Ferengi culture trades in negative stereotypes of Jewish merchants (not quite as much anger as over the character Watto in Star Wars, but still a fair amount of invective).  I would only note that in the series, Quark is another example of an alien torn between the norms of his own culture and a “hyuman” culture he believes is hypocritical.  Shimerman is the cynical alien – forcing his friends on the station (and the Trekkers watching) to question whether the Trek future is living up to its values.

Armin Shimerman at the Star Trek convention in Las Vegas in 2008. Photo by Beth Madison.

Armin Shimerman at the Star Trek convention in Las Vegas in 2008. Photo by Beth Madison.

I can’t let this brief review of aliens with Jewish origins end without some mention of Mandy Patinkin’s role as Sam Francisco in the movie Alien Nation.  For those of you who may have missed this classic, Francisco comes from an alien race of former slaves who take refuge near Los Angeles after they are marooned on their space ship.  Patinkin’s character is one of the first Newcomer policemen and he is paired with a hard-boiled human cop, played by James Caan, to solve a murder mystery.  Francisco’s dilemma – wanting to assimilate, yet not wanting to lose his cultural roots is really a classic immigrant story grafted into a sci-fi environment.  Again, it seems as though Patinkin, beneath his alien make-up, is channeling the experience of our grandparents as they struggled to find a place in this new world.

Poster for Alien Nation.

Poster for Alien Nation.

So yes I will miss both Nimoy, the actor and Spock, the character, but I also know that this is not the end of our exploration of alien worlds.

Marvin PinkertA blog post by Museum Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




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