A-Mazing to the End

Posted on June 22nd, 2015 by

Last weekend I gave one final tour of the Mendes Cohen exhibit and the finish to our story is as bizarre and awesome as the life of Mendes himself.

Special Mendes Visitors

Some very special visitors to The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen.

In our penultimate Mendes Cohen program we invited Dick Goldman, co-chair of the Jewish Genealogical Society to speak about the Cohen family tree.  Dick looked at our statement that “Israel Cohen has no known living descendants” as a challenge rather than a fact.  Using somewhat unorthodox methods he was able to uncover the fact that Alan Mordecai Cohen III was not the end of his family tree!  It seems that Mr. Cohen married a member of Hungarian royalty (surname: Buda) and in compliance with her wishes converted to Catholicism and changed his family name to Clarke.

The newly-named Clarkes raised a son and a daughter, both of whom went on to have children of their own. Alan’s daughter Bertha is still very much alive today, enjoying her eighth decade.  The man in the photo above is Bertha’s son, Ronald A. Brown.  When Dick contacted Ronald last Wednesday, he discovered that Ronald was in the process of moving from Baltimore to Gettysburg.  Dick told him that the exhibit was closing on Sunday – what a piece of timing! So it turns out that the very last visitor to the exhibit was a direct descendant of Israel Cohen, Mendes’ father.

But that isn’t the most incredible part.  The most incredible part is that Ronald’s cousin Richard Clarke and his uncle Alan Clarke formed a business called Marcor Remediation here in Baltimore in about 1980.  Here is a description of Marcor from the Baltimore Sun in 2006.  I have highlighted the part that floored me in red.

Marcor’s primary business is garden-variety asbestos removal and demolition. But in recent years, the company has been the Forrest Gump of environmental cleanup, stumbling into some of the biggest headline-grabbing disasters in recent memory.

Some people make history, and others are witness to it.

Marcor is its janitor.

The company was tearing down walls and removing asbestos in the basement of the Pentagon when terrorists struck with an airliner on Sept. 11, 2001. Days later, its crews were first on the scene at the Fresh Kills landfill in New York’s Staten Island, where hundreds of workers labored for 10 months to sift through every scrap of rubble from the World Trade Center.

During that period, they assisted contractors decontaminating the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington after a second anthrax attack forced lawmakers and staff from their offices. And with about 700 employees spread nationwide, Marcor has been on the scene after just about every major hurricane of the past two years, from Ivan and Charlie to Katrina and Rita.

It’s all in a day’s work for a company that got its first job – removing asbestos from a Baltimore County elementary school – on the day Mount St. Helens exploded in Washington state in 1980.

“It’s almost like, `What is it that needs doing that nobody else is doing?'” said Richard Clarke, who founded the company with his father, Alan Clarke. “And that’s where we want to be.”

It is the ultimate a-mazing finish to the story.  Mendes was sent into the powder magazine at Fort McHenry when America is under attack in 1814 to secure the facility from harm.  His familial descendant Richard Clarke went into the World Trade Center 187 years later to remediate the explosion when America is attacked again.  I thought that this type of coincidence only happened in the movies.

I also learned from Ronald Brown that his grandfather Alan Mordecai Cohen was 6’5” – suggesting he was a beneficiary of the same gene that produced Mendes’ impressive height.  Ronald also said that his son possessed a documented history of the Cohens that his uncle created in the 1980s.  We’re hoping to get a copy for our collection.

We hope everyone has enjoyed following along with The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen and his continuing adventures as much as we have – he is certainly going to be missed here at the Museum.

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


Posted in jewish museum of maryland

A Heady Brew: Magna Carta, Whiskey and Jewish History

Posted on June 15th, 2015 by

I know that everyone has today marked on their calendars as a birthday – probably not your birthday – but the birthday of Magna Carta.  It turns 800 years old today.  Now the reason it’s on my calendar is that for 11 years I was the steward of the only extant copy of Magna Carta in North America – the copy on display at the National Archives.

Magna Carta, 1297.   On display in the new David M. Rubenstein Gallery. Presented courtesy of David M. Rubenstein.

Magna Carta, 1297. On display in the new David M. Rubenstein Gallery. Presented courtesy of David M. Rubenstein.

Next Sunday I will be offering a free tour of the National Archives at 2pm as part of our Schnapps with Pops program.  We are headed to the “Spirited Republic” exhibit – the latest changing exhibit at the National Archives and the inspiration for our JMM program.  But given this important birthday, we’ll also be taking a side trip to see Magna Carta.

On view at the National Archives

On view at the National Archives

Magna Carta on display at the National Archives is in fact just 718 years old.  It was not signed or sealed by King John but rather by his grandson King Edward I.  So what makes it special?  Well, Magna Carta (Archives trivia – never supposed to write “the” Magna Carta, because it is a Latin name and bears no article) was not a singular act.  John put his seal on Magna Carta under threat at Runnymede and from the time the ink dried, John and his successors looked for ways to annul, rescind and evade it.  In this long series of royal pledges and revocations – the 1297 Magna Carta stands out because Edward agreed to an additional clause that enrolled Magna Carta in the statutes of England, settling the question of whether this was the permanent law of the land.

And the Jewish connection?  Ask yourself “why did the kings keep issuing Magna Carta if they had little interest in conceding absolute royal power?”  The fundamental answer is that they needed money and agreeing to a power-sharing formula with the barons was a way to stimulate their assent to new taxes.  The original strategy of the Norman kings to finance their rule of their new Anglo-Saxon domain was to bring over Jewish merchants.  In addition to developing the English economy, Jews were trusted agents of the monarchy – since their very presence in the country was at the sufferance of the king, the Norman rulers could count on their loyalty.

This helps explain Clause 10 in the 1215 Magna Carta.  It is a clause which relieves the baronial families of having to pay interest to Jews after the death of a baron.  Limiting the financial dealings of England’s Jews was seen as part of curbing the powers of the king.

When we put Magna Carta back on display in 2011, several reporters asked me if the absence of Clause 10 in the 1297 Magna Carta was indicative of a change in attitude towards Jews.  The answer was unfortunately, “no”, the clause is missing from this Magna Carta, because Edward saw fit to expel all Jews from the country in 1290 and therefore could not agree to regulate a trade that – at least on paper – had ceased to exist.

"Famous whiskey insurrection in Pennsylvania", an illustration from Our first century: being a popular descriptive portraiture of the one hundred great and memorable events of perpetual interest in the history of our country by R. M. Devens (Springfield, Mass, 1882). Image courtesy of the New York Public Library via Wikipedia.org.

“Famous whiskey insurrection in Pennsylvania”, an illustration from Our first century: being a popular descriptive portraiture of the one hundred great and memorable events of perpetual interest in the history of our country by R. M. Devens (Springfield, Mass, 1882). Image courtesy of the New York Public Library via Wikipedia.org.

And what about the whiskey connection?  Well, “Spirited Republic” is dedicated to the story of the federal government and alcohol, and most of that story is about how the federal government would support itself.  The very first American insurrection, more than 60 years before the Civil War, is the Whiskey Rebellion – a pitched battle over the tax on alcohol.  In the post-Civil War era, as much as 40% of the federal government’s income rested on liquor excise taxes.  This is why the advocates of prohibition helped push through the 16th amendment establishing an income tax before advancing the 18th amendment banning the sale of alcohol.  The exhibit contains several documents from Jewish distillers before, during and after prohibition.

So I could frame the connections between Magna Carta, whiskey and Jewish history as being all about the struggle for human liberty… or we could agree that it is all about one of life’s two certainties – taxes.

See you on Sunday!

See you on Sunday!

If you are interested in taking Sunday’s tour, it is free but you must RSVP to Trillion (tattwood@jewishmuseummd.org) by Wednesday so that we can give the National Archives a final count on attendance.


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

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

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.



  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 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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