Exploring Jewish South Africa

Posted on February 10th, 2016 by

A few weeks ago, I got back from a vacation in South Africa, where among other things, I got to explore its Jewish culture and history. I learned that the first Jews came to region in the 15th century with the Portuguese navigators Bartholomew Diaz and Vasco da Gama. On board, were Jewish cartographers and astronomers assisting in the search for a sea route to India. More Jews started arriving with the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century, but immigration really picked up with the British colonization in the 1820s. Many Jews moved to South Africa after the Holocaust and now the South African Jewish community is often described as one of the most cohesive and well-organized communities in the Diaspora.

Synagogue interior

The Great Synagogue interior

I visited the South African Jewish Museum in Cape Town, founded by Nelson Mandela in 2000, which reminded me in many ways of the Jewish Museum of MD. Like us, they have two historic synagogues on their campus including St. John’s Street Synagogue (also known as the Old Synagogue, the first one built in South Africa, dating from 1863) and the Great Synagogue, (the oldest Jewish congregation in South Africa, dating to 1841). While St. John’s Street synagogue occupies a classical revival building (reminding me in many ways of Lloyd Street Synagogue in Baltimore), the Great Synagogue has a Baroque style edifice. There was also a Holocaust center in the Museum complex.

The Old Synagogue interior

The Old Synagogue interior

While in the exhibits, I discovered that many of the early Jews made their living as itinerant peddlers or as shop owners. In the late 1870s, some moved to the Oudtshoorn area to domesticate ostriches for their feathers to be used in hats. There was a section in the exhibit on how South African Jews were politically and socially active in the fight against apartheid. On the lower floor of the Museum, I found a reconstruction of a shetl from a village in Lithuania, the country from which most South African Jews trace their origins.

District Six Museum

District Six Museum

After my visit to the Jewish Museum, I walked over to the District Six Museum, which is a living memorial to the vibrant community that was forcibly removed to the city’s periphery during apartheid. The Museum wants visitors to “remember the racism which took away our homes and our livelihood and which sought to steal away our humanity.” Yet, it also aims to encourage others to rebuild the city where all races can live together peacefully. I learned that there was a Jewish connection as many Eastern European Jewish immigrants settled in District Six when they began arriving in the 1880s. On the floor of the gallery is a memory quilt where former residents have handwritten the names of businesses and community organizations that were once in their neighborhood.

Me at the ostrich farm

Me at the ostrich farm

While keeping in mind what I learned at the South African Jewish Museum, I later visited an ostrich farm in Oudtshoorn and drove by mansions owned by Jewish feather merchants. I concluded my trip with a ferry to Robben Island where I saw where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years.

Nelson Mandela's cell on Robben Island

Nelson Mandela’s cell on Robben Island

GrahamA blog post by Graham Humphrey, Visitor Services Coordinator. To read more posts by Graham click HERE.

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Weekend in New York

Posted on December 31st, 2015 by

At the Center for Jewish History.

At the Center for Jewish History.

A few weeks ago I visited New York City to see a few exhibits, Broadway shows and of course the holiday decorations around Rockefeller Plaza. My first stop was the Center for Jewish History in lower Manhattan. I had actually never heard of the Center, but was glad that I discovered it. It opened in late 2000 and includes both permanent displays, such as the stunning Luminous Manuscript which is shaped like a Talmud page, and temporary exhibits. I visited several exhibits including one called “Modeling the Synagogue: From Dura to Touro,” which contained ten scale models of history synagogues commissioned by the Yeshiva University Museum ranging from Dura-Europos in 3rd-centurey Syria to Touro Synagogue in 18th century Newport, Rhode Island.

Touro Synagogue model

Touro Synagogue model

I then headed uptown to the Museum of the City of New York.  While there, I saw an exhibit called “Jacob A. Riis: Revealing New York’s Other Half.” Jacob Riis was a pioneering newspaper reporter and social reformer in New York at the turn of the century who worked tirelessly to improve housing, health care and education, particularly for immigrants. A review in the NY Times rightly points out that with nearly one of every two New Yorkers still struggling to get by, Riis’s exposure of extreme inequalities is still very timely and relevant. The exhibit featured Riis’s photographs as well as his handwritten journals and personal correspondence. I was most struck by images of children living in squalid conditions in the Lower East Side. I found one Jewish connection in a photograph of Jewish immigrants laboring in a tenement sweatshop on Hester Street. There were also two videos of the popular slide shows that Riis staged around the country showcasing his photographs.

Sweatshop in Hester St, 1889-90

Sweatshop in Hester St, 1889-90

The second exhibit I went to at the Museum of the City of New York was “Folk City: New York and the Folk Music Revival.” This exhibit traced the roots of the Folk Music Revival, its growth in New York and its impact on American culture and politics during the 1960s. It contained photographs, documents, instruments, videos and plenty of songs for headphone listening. Stephen Petrus, one of the exhibit’s curators, spoke earlier this month at JMM about the exhibit. I was excited to see early on in the exhibit a copy of The American Songbag by Carl Sandburg, as a couple of years ago I worked as a Park Ranger at the Carl Sandburg Home in North Carolina. One of my favorite pieces was Bob Dylan’s handwritten lyrics for “Blowing in the Wind.” I also found Odetta’s guitar, a broadside by Phil Ochs on the Cuban Missile Crisis and watched a video clip of my idol Pete Seeger and Judy Collins sing a duet. If you want to visit, I’d hurry, because it closes on Jan. 10th!

Folk City

Folk City

GrahamA blog post by Graham Humphrey, Visitor Services Coordinator. To read more posts by Graham click HERE.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




A Visit to the Twin Cities

Posted on November 23rd, 2015 by

If you were tasked with coming up with a concept for a new core exhibition project that would tell the story of Maryland Jewish history for audiences of all ages and backgrounds, one that integrated new technologies and featured innovative exhibition design strategies, where would you start? One way to begin the process is to take a look at model exhibit projects across the country and to speak with leading museum professionals in search of inspiration. I was lucky enough to take part on a three-day fact finding mission to Minneapolis and St. Paul to do just that.

The JMM has recently embarked on the planning process to develop an exhibit that will replace Voices of Lombard Street. Our vision is to create an interactive exhibit that engages diverse audiences in learning about the many nuances of Maryland Jewish history, that highlights our outstanding collections and is truly a 21st century exhibit, meaning that it takes advantage of new technology and theories of how best to engage visitors through design.

Members of our exhibit advisory committee have spent the past few weeks traveling to other cities in search of innovative projects to help inform our project development and planning. In the beginning of the month, I had the privilege of visiting the Twin Cities with two other committee members, Program Committee Chair, Jerry Macks and Anita Kassof, Executive Director of the Baltimore Museum of Industry (and former Associate Director of the JMM). During our three day trip, we visited six museums, enjoyed the famed Midwestern hospitality (while not enjoying quite as much the cold weather) and took lots of notes. Here are some of the highlights of our trip.

Our first stop was the American Swedish Institute (www.asimn.org), which is located inside an early 20th century castle built by a Swedish immigrant who became a newspaper magnate. The museum’s entrance is in a modern visitor center built recently to house a beautiful and inviting gift shop, café and public program space. The museum definitely had its charms including the beautifully handcrafted interior design features as well as friendly and knowledgeable volunteers. The third floor of the house contained exhibits on such topics as the history of Swedish immigration to Minneapolis (we would have loved to have learned this info earlier in our visit) as well as on Swedish hospitals and music. The ASI’s mission to serve as a cultural center for people of all backgrounds, including many new immigrants who currently reside in Minneapolis, resonated with us and spoke to the significant role that ethnic specific museums can play in their communities.

One of many elaborately tiled fireplaces at the American Swedish Institute.

One of many elaborately tiled fireplaces at the American Swedish Institute.

Next up, the Bakken Museum (www.thebakken.org), a quirky museum founded by inventor Earl Bakken to house his collection of medical equipment and electrical devices. The museum’s exhibits feature an abundance of interactive displays that delight visitors of all ages and teach about an array of scientific principles. One of the things we most enjoyed about the museum was its promotion of social experiences among visitors through activities that involved more than one person.

For example, at Benjamin Franklin’s Electricity Party, one person turned cranks while another grabbed a metal bar to light sparks and ring bells.

For example, at Benjamin Franklin’s Electricity Party, one person turned cranks while another grabbed a metal bar to light sparks and ring bells.

Another highlight was the Cabinet of Curiosity that featured favorite artifacts from the museum’s collections selected by staff, volunteers and board members. It was fun to read why individuals selected the objects that they did and a nearby iPad provided additional information about specific artifacts.

Cabinet of Curiosity.

Cabinet of Curiosity

The next day was spent in St. Paul which is situated a mere 8 miles from Minneapolis across the Mississippi River. Our morning was spent at the impressive Minnesota Science Museum (www.smm.org/). The highlight of the visit was having the chance to meet with Paul Martin, Senior Vice President of Science Learning, who shared with us his vast knowledge about exhibit design and visitor engagement. It was enlightening hearing Paul’s observations about the many factors that play into visitors’ experiences and what kinds of things we should be taking into consideration as we begin planning our new core exhibit. Paul also kindly showed us around the museum’s exhibits which gave us the chance to see how these theories play out in an array of exhibit spaces. Most impressive were the Collector’s Corner where visitors are encouraged to bring in specimens from nature that they can research and, if they like, swap what they’ve brought for something else in the exhibit as well as a temporary exhibit that helps visitors explore and understand complex mathematical principles.

Minnesota Science Museum

Minnesota Science Museum

We also had the chance to see the groundbreaking exhibit, Race: Are We So Different? that challenges conventional notions of race. We left after three hours feeling energized and inspired.

From there, we walked a short distance to the Minnesota History Center, which contains exhibits exploring Minnesota history. Our initial impression was, honestly, not so great. It was a little difficult to find our way around and the first two exhibits we saw were packed with school kids. While we were impressed with the experiential nature of the exhibits as well as the many opportunities for hands-on engagement, we found them lacking in interpretation.

Although there definitely were some cool interactives such as stations where visitors could scan QR codes found on objects to learn more.

Although there definitely were some cool interactives such as stations where visitors could scan QR codes found on objects to learn more.

We persevered, however, and moved on to a quieter section of the museum where we experienced a beautiful exhibit honoring the lives of Minnesota’s “Greatest Generation,” the men and women who lived through the Depression and World War II. Another enjoyable exhibit explored the science behind Minnesota’s weather. As it was a rather chilly day (at least Anita, Jerry and I thought so – we were shocked to see people walking about without coats!), it was interesting learning about the extremes of weather that Minnesotans experience (and made me appreciate living in Baltimore much more).

For our last day, we ventured back to Minneapolis for one of the coolest museums I’ve ever visited. Mill City (www.millcitymuseum.org) is operated by the Minnesota History Center and built on the ruins of what was once a booming flour mill. In the cavernous space, visitors learn about the importance of the milling industry to Minneapolis’s history and the role that the Mississippi River played in its development. The museum experience takes advantage of its location by completely immersing visitors in the factory environment of a flour mill and one of its most unique (and fun) activities is an elevator ride that delivers the history of the mill through recorded oral histories and period sets that are revealed as the doors of the elevator open onto different floors. The elevator lets visitors out on the top floor where there is an observation deck that provides stunning views of the river.

View from Mill City.

View from Mill City.

The exhibit on the lower level of the mill includes a thorough history of the milling industry complete with a variety of interactive activities (many of which are low tech), a working kitchen where volunteers provide baking demonstrations (this is one of the few museums I’ve experienced that includes both smell and taste as integral parts of the visit) and a brief but informative film that provides an overview of Minneapolis’s history.

Mill City lower floor exhibit

Mill City lower floor exhibit

Although we were somewhat fatigued after spending so much time visiting museums, our flight home didn’t leave for a few hours so we decided to add one more non-history /non- science museum to our tour and visited the Walker Art Center (www.walkerart.org), a leading contemporary art museum. Our visit happened to coincide with the first Saturday of the month which is their free day so the place was teeming with visitors, many of whom brought their children for the variety of hands-on art workshops.  While it was refreshing to have the chance to view art (and the collection is outstanding), we were definitely feeling a little overwhelmed and museumed out, so we did not stay too long.

All in all, Jerry, Anita and I were thrilled to have the chance to see such a variety of outstanding museums. We came away with many terrific ideas that will certainly inform our exhibit planning process.

deborahA blog post by Deputy Director Deborah Cardin. To read more posts from Deborah click HERE.

 

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