Louisville: Bourbon Barrels, Baseball Bats and Big Ideas

Posted on September 24th, 2015 by

Sandwiched between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Ilene Dackman-Alon and I attended the 75th annual meeting of the American Association for State and Local History, held this year in Louisville, KY.  It was a great opportunity to tour museum sites, confer with colleagues, discuss industry trends and return with ideas to improve JMM.  Here are a few of the highlights:

1. Serving the Visually Impaired – Ilene attended a workshop at the American Printing House for the Blind. Founded in 1858, APH is the oldest organization of its kind in the United States. From 1858 until the Civil War began, APH organized its operation and raised funds to create embossed books. After the war, APH produced its first tactile books. By the early 1870s, APH was operating on a national scale. APH is the official supplier of educational materials to all students in the U.S. who meet the definition of blindness and are working at less than college level.  We saw the actual printing of pages with Braille letters as well as the binding of the books.


An APH educator

An APH educator

It was fascinating to hear from museum educators (who happened to be visually impaired as well) about how they experience museums and the importance of making museums accessible to all types of learners using a variety of interactives and engaging materials for all of the  senses.  I loved seeing all of the different tactile materials that are produced at APH in so many subjects (music, math, science, English arts, social studies).  They even showed us the Braille version of the program from President Obama’s Second Inauguration.

A display on music at APH

A display on music at APH

I was pleased to see that that many of the steps that the JMM has taken to serve the visually impaired under the leadership of Robyn Hughes are in line with best practices at APH. As we move forward in creating new exhibits at the JMM, I hope we can implement some of the ideas such as wheel-chair level chair rails, Braille texts and panels to create a richer museum experience.


Trilobite touch wall at Falls of the Ohio State Park.

Trilobite touch wall at Falls of the Ohio State Park.

Marvin took a tour of neighboring historic sites and also had a chance to see some interesting work being installed at the Falls of the Ohio State Park (just across the river from Louisville) where a firm had integrated tactile exploration into every part of its core exhibit.

2. We also enjoyed hearing the keynote speaker, Sam Wineburg, author  of  Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.  Wineburg is an educator at Stanford’s Graduate School of Education.  He recently developed the Reading Like a Historian Curriculum which has been downloaded  over 2  million times.  The curriculum engages students in historical inquiry, one of the basic pedagogic skills that is a thrust of the Maryland Career and College Ready Standards and Common Core curriculum.  Each lesson revolves around a central historical question and features sets of primary documents designed for groups of students with diverse reading skills and abilities.

Wineburg  used the term “digital natives” to describe the generation that has grown up in the digital age.  The Internet provide us with so many different websites .  One of the questions that he raised,  Who is an Informed Citizen in the Digital Age?  How much of the information on the web should be believed?  Wineburg spoke about  “The Digital Tookbox”  and questions that one must ask to realize if the information and website really come from a reliable source.  He spoke about a case study that took place in Los Angeles, where teachers gave the students three websites and had them write about the reasons for the Holocaust.  All three website had not been vetted, and many students took the information on the website as absolute facts.  They went on to write essays with claims that the Holocaust never took place.

3. The history relevance campaign – a group within AASLH (among the leaders, Baltimore’s own John Durel) is trying to create energy on a national campaign to promote the value of history.  The effort was a response to the marginalization of history as a subject matter, both in schools and in the public conversation about cultural institutions.  The organizers  are stressing a common vocabulary that organizations like ours can use in making the case for greater civic and foundation support:  http://www.historyrelevance.com/#!value-statement/ca2m.  In the coming months I will be urging Historic Jonestown Inc., the Greater Baltimore History Alliance and the JMM Board to add our voices to this national movement.

4. A different way of looking at historic sites.  The archeologist giving the tour at the Farnsley-Moremen House began his talk by saying “no one famous or important ever lived here, it was not the site of a battle or any other monumental event.”  He went on to demonstrate, however, that it was a great site to talk about historical thinking and to engage the public in the process of uncovering history.  It caused me to think deeply about the balance we need to achieve between fixing our gaze on the important historic events that took place in our synagogues and on our block – and the illustrations we can offer through these spaces about “how we know” the lives of average Jewish Marylanders.

At the Falls, Jay was just a stiff, at Farnsley-Moremen House he was our very lively guide.

At the Falls, Jay was just a stiff, at Farnsley-Moremen House he was our very lively guide.

5. “Unfolding Events” – in many ways this was the most thought-provoking session I attended.  It was an open forum discussion about how museums could/should respond to “unexpected events” that have strong impacts on the cultural community – examples included Ferguson and Baltimore, the legislative struggle over gay rights that especially impacted Indiana, and the debate over Confederate flags, statues and emblems that is raging within and without Civil War sites.  One of the most interesting side-bars was the question of the obligation of museums to collect materials on political and social controversies that impact their respective communities.  This is a topic we raised at this week’s JMM Collections Committee.

6. One more honor for Mendes Cohen.  Ilene and I have to admit that one of the highlights was taking home the Leadership in History Award for the A-Mazing Mendes Cohen project.  What a great tribute to the whole team that put together this incredible project.  On the morning of the awards ceremony, Ilene and I staffed a booth explaining the background of the exhibit and living history character.  The most bittersweet moment was that nearly everyone who came by the booth said “when can I come and see it” and we had to explain the unhappy fact that the project had expired.  It certainly was an inspiration to bring back some of this experience within our new core exhibit.

Our poster presentation

Our poster presentation


Poster Accessories

7. Finally – full confession – we also had fun.  Marvin attended a workshop on “gamification” of museum content.  For someone whose two top passions are board games and museums this was as good as it gets.  On Thursday night we took a stroll down “Whiskey Row” – now home to several museums including the Frazier Museum (with a great homemade exhibit and theater program on Lewis and Clark) and the Louisville Slugger Factory Tour.  Here you see me holding Mickey Mantle’s baseball bat (but that’s only because Hank Greenberg’s wasn’t available).

A true Louisville Slugger

A true Louisville Slugger

But by far my most unusual Louisville experience was attending a small reception at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience.  This is the home of a business that proclaims itself Kentucky’s first commercial distiller.  It is indeed still a family owned business – except that family is not the Williams’ it’s the Shapira’s that have owned the parent company, Heaven Hill, for seven generations (for those of you who attended the Schnapps with Pops program in June, this comes as no surprise).  The tour of the faux factory was entertaining and it ends with a bourbon tasting.  I’m afraid the 23 year old bourbon was wasted on my uneducated palette.

Video screens informed you how to properly "taste" the bourbon.

Video screens informed you how to properly “taste” the bourbon.

Next year this conference moves to Detroit.  I’ll let you know if they let us test drive a Corvette.

A blog post from Executive Director Marvin Pinkert and Education Director Ilene Dackman-Alon. To read more posts by Marvin click HERETo read more posts by Ilene click HERE.

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Remembering Lives Touched

Posted on July 22nd, 2015 by

Theodore Bikel 1924-2015

Theodore Bikel performing at the St. Louis Jewish Books Festival, November 2, 2014. Photo by Fitzaubrey.

Theodore Bikel performing at the St. Louis Jewish Books Festival, November 2, 2014. Photo by Fitzaubrey.

There are many contexts for remembering Theodore Bikel, the multi-talented entertainer and activist who passed away yesterday.  Many of the tributes I’ve seen on-line, speak to his many performances on stage and screen in roles as ranging from a regimented Austrian navy officer (in Broadway’s The Sound of Music) to a compassionate rabbi in outer space (on TV’s Babylon 5).  But for the last six weeks, the context in which I have been thinking about Theodore Bikel involves Paul Simon – and that requires more than a little explanation.

On October 11th the Jewish Museum of Maryland will be privileged to be the first venue of a traveling biographical exhibit on the life of one of America’s most beloved singer-songwriters, Paul Simon: Words and Music.  Developed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the exhibit chronicles the whole career of this musical icon – including his first guitar, clips from his performances on Saturday Night Live, and draft lyrics of songs like Mrs. Robinson – sometimes literally written on the back of an envelope.  The show also features a series of narrative interviews drawn from three hours of conversation with Simon created especially for this exhibition.

The exhibit would be worth seeing at any venue, but since it is here at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, we decided to add an extra dimension.  We are creating a small companion “pop-up” exhibit exploring the role of people of Jewish heritage in the American folk revival and the evolution of folk-rock in the 1950s and 1960s.  We began this effort with the observation that a disproportionate number of the great folk singer-songwriters (Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Phil Ochs among others) came from middle-class Jewish homes.  But as we researched further we learned that there were so many more links and connections not just with performers but with the forces behind the scenes that propelled this musical genre.

And that’s why I’ve been reading a lot about Theodore Bikel in the last couple of months.  Growing up, I thought of Bikel’s folk albums as something belonging to my older sister’s generation – old-timey tunes from around the globe – music that had little to do with the younger performers that I listened to.

In a way, Bikel’s own modesty about the scope of his work reinforced that image.  Here is a quote from his autobiography that we’re using in the exhibit:

A folksinger is one whose material is drawn from one idiom based on the roots of his own tribe, his own people, his own heritage.  Although I sing in twenty-one languages, I can legitimately call myself a folksinger in just one idiom – the Jewish one… it was something of a tightrope act, being a keeper of Jewish tradition on the one hand and doing the multicultural thing on the other…

From Theo, The Autobiography of Theodore Bikel (Harper Collins, 1994)

But the lives Bikel touched went way beyond his “one idiom”.  Let me share just three examples of the way he shaped American folk music:  The Byrds, Bob Dylan and Judy Collins.

From an interview with Roger McGuinn: 

ROGER: After a while at the Old Town School, I got good enough to get a job playing folk songs at a coffeehouse on Rush Street in Chicago for 10 dollars a night. When I’d finish the evening at the coffeehouse, I’d go down to the place where all the professional folk singers played: The Gate of Horn.

One night there was a jam session going on at The Gate of Horn. There were The Limeliters and Theodore Bikel. They had a lot of guitars going and asked me to play my banjo. At 5 o’clock in the morning, Alex Hassilev of the Limeliters asked me if I wanted a job playing for them. “Yes!” I said, and he gave me an album and told me to learn the songs and meet them at 1 o’clock the next afternoon for an audition.

So I took the album home and stayed up the rest of the night learning the songs. The next day I met them and got through the audition. Alex said, “Great! You got the job. When can you start?”

“I get out of high school in June,” I said sheepishly.

“High school!” Alex asked in disbelief. “Didn’t we meet you in a bar last night?”

I told them how the bartender let me in because I played music and didn’t make any trouble.

In June they sent a plane ticket and I flew to Los Angeles to record Tonight in Person with them for RCA Records.


In 1959 Bikel co-founded the Newport Folk Festival (together with Pete Seeger, Oscar Brand, and George Wein). Here is a piece of his interview about the moment when folk went electric:

DAN EPSTEIN: It’s interesting to read your perspective on Bob Dylan’s “electric” performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Your reaction to it was more measured than, say, Pete Seeger’s was, but you were still clearly upset by the incident.

THEODORE BIKEL: Yeah, I was upset. But I also knew that this music had somewhere to go — it just wasn’t right for Newport, and for the folk festival that we were running. I also didn’t like the idea that Bob Dylan, who was idealized by so many of the people in the audience, would be booed offstage. Nobody likes to hear that sound! I mean, when he came offstage, he was white in the face and trembling. And I said to him, “Bobby, if a person rides on a horse and gets thrown from the horse, unless he gets back on the horse he’ll never ride again. So I suggest you get out there with an acoustic guitar, and give them the Bob Dylan they came to hear.” And he did that. Of course, he was in the mode of a declaration of independence; what he sang with the electronic band was, “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more,” which is a declaration of independence. And then, when he went out there with his acoustic guitar, he sang, “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” which is just as much of a declaration of independence.

Finally, I turn to Jac Holzman’s company bio – Following the Music:  The Life and High Times of Elektra Records in the Great Years of American Pop Culture.  Holzman, who created his record label while in still in college (using his bar mitzvah money) gives credit to Bikel’s popular albums for keeping the company afloat during lean years from 1956 to 1961.  In this way, all the great artists on Elektra – all the way up to The Doors, owe a piece of their success to Theodore Bikel.  But the book relates one particular story:

THEODORE BIKEL: Jac said, “You have a Carnegie Hall concert coming up.  Why don’t you introduce Judy?”  I listened to her at the Bitter End and she was lovely with a gorgeous voice.  So I said, “Sure.”

JUDY COLLINS: Theo gave me a big break, because that was an important concert.  He was very sweet to me always.  He’s a very good man.

There are many reasons to appreciate Theodore Bikel – not just what he accomplished, but what he enabled others to accomplish.

Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, the Freedom Singers, Pete Seeger, and Theodore Bikel photographed on July 26, 1963, by John Byrne Cooke at the Newport Folk Festival, singing “We Shall Overcome” with a standing audience of 13,000 joining in.

Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, the Freedom Singers, Pete Seeger, and Theodore Bikel photographed on July 26, 1963, by John Byrne Cooke at the Newport Folk Festival, singing “We Shall Overcome” with a standing audience of 13,000 joining in.





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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.


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