Looking to learn more about Jewish history and culture?

Posted on July 28th, 2015 by

Consider an excursion to the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) in Philadelphia. Located in the Old City, near the Liberty Bell, this 100,000-square-foot, glass-and-terra-cotta-cloaked building explores the history of Judaism in the United States from the 1600s until modern day.

NMAJH Exterior

NMAJH Exterior

I visited the Museum last month to explore my Jewish heritage and to see how we can improve our own visitor experience services at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. At the National Museum of American Jewish History there are three floors of interactive state-of-the-art exhibits, focusing on the theme of American Freedom, with each floor offering a historical chapter: “Foundations of Freedom, 1654-1880,” “Dreams of Freedom, 1880-1945” and Choices and Challenges of Freedom, 1945-Today.”

My visit to the Museum gave me an opportunity to learn why Jews immigrated to America, the choices they faced, the challenges they confronted and the ways in which they assimilated into American culture. I was excited that the Baltimore Jewish community and the establishment of our own Lloyd Street Synagogue was included in the “Establishing Communities” exhibit.  As I grew up near Newport, RI, I was fascinated to read more about the Touro Synagogue and learn about how some Jewish merchants were connected to the slave trade.  The Civil War portion of the exhibit mentioned the debate between Rabbi Bernard Illoway of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and Rabbi David Einhorn of Har Sinai Congregation in Baltimore. Throughout the core exhibit, I was impressed by the inclusion of evocative objects such as a Dutch record from 1654, depicting one of the earliest references to Jews in North America, as well as immigrant belongings, Jewish themed movie posters, and expressions of political and social issues ranging from the push of equality for Jewish women within American society and the fight for gay marriage.

Establishing Communities Exhibit

Establishing Communities Exhibit

The exhibit ends in the present day with the opportunity to share your personal views in two high-tech, interactive experiences: Contemporary Issues Forum and It’s Your Story. The Contemporary Issues Forum asks the visitor to respond to questions such as “Should religion play a role in American politics?” There are also video recording stations called, It’s Your Story, where you can respond to questions such as “What is the most valuable thing you learned at summer camp” or “share your favorite holiday tradition.”

The “Only in America” Gallery, located in the lobby area, contains images and artifacts honoring 18 Jewish-Americans selected by voters on the internet. I was honored that they included Louis Brandeis, from my alma mater Brandeis University. The lobby level also contains a small installation on “The Pursuit of Happiness: Jewish Voices for LGBT Rights.” There is also a first rate gift shop (with a fantastic book for sale on the core exhibition which I purchased).

I am happy to report that I developed a stronger connection to Judaism and greater understanding of how the Maryland Jewish story fits into the larger American Jewish experience at NMAJH. I hope that others can have an equally rewarding experience at this museum.

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

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CAJM Conference Wrap Up

Posted on March 30th, 2011 by

Professional development is a valued activity at the JMM. Staff members are encouraged to attend lectures, workshops, and conferences. The benefits of learning new skills from experts in the field help us grow in our jobs as we gather information and resources that we bring back with us. Furthermore, these programs often provide opportunities to network with colleagues from institutions – large and small – from across the country and to learn about interesting and innovative programs taking place at other museums. While the benefits of these kinds of programs are obviously, it can sometimes be challenging figuring out a strategy for implementing what you have learned as it is so easy for the materials you gathered and notes you’ve taken to get buried as you return to the piles of work, phone messages, and emails that accumulate while you are away from your desk. Recently, I had the chance to attend Our Stories, Our Museums: New Chapters For Jewish Culture, the annual conference of the Council of American Jewish Museums along with several of my colleagues.

The conference took place at the recently opened National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia where nearly 200 professionals from Jewish museums from across the country (as well as from Europe) gathered for three intensive days of lectures, panel discussions, visits to museums, and networking. I left the conference feeling inspired by the amazing work going on at Jewish museums across the country and excited by the many model programs that I learned about.

NMAJH Core Exhibition

The tote bag that I received from the conference was filled with legal pads with notes scribbled furiously upon them from the sessions that I attended as well as resource materials distributed by session speakers, not to mention program brochures picked up from other museums. The bag sat untouched under my desk for a couple of weeks. Finally, I started going through materials and sat down to review my notes.

The bag in question, chock full of informational goodies!

One of the difficult decisions you often have to make at conferences is deciding which program to attend as multiple sessions are scheduled simultaneously. Do you attend the session with a panel comprised of several renowned museum professional sharing their collective wisdom from many years in the field or the session devoted to fundraising 101 complete with practical hands-on ideas? Go to workshop geared to my specific responsibilities at the JMM or a panel discussion on interesting topics about the museum field in general. Fortunately, as I went through my notes, I realized that because several other JMM staff members attend the conference and had the foresight to “divide and conquer” each of us had attended different sessions so we could share what we had learned with the larger group. We all decided to meet one day over lunch to compare notes and resources from the sessions that we had attended. This proved to be a wonderful strategy for reviewing session content and to continue brainstorming how we might collectively implement some of the ideas gathered at the conference.

Just a few of the many materials and notepads from the conference.

Of particular interest to our group was a session that I attended devoted to the topic, Turning Stories Into History: Transforming the Narrative Through Oral History and Digital Storytelling. Three speakers – representing three different Jewish museums (from New York, Connecticut, and Denver) discussed three very different techniques for incorporating oral history interviews and personal stories into exhibitions, films, and other programs. One of the speakers, Deanne Kapnik from the Mizel Museum in Denver, spoke about a new museum initiative, the Community Narratives Project, a collection of digital stories gathered from a broad cross section of Denver’s Jewish community that have become a key feature of a new permanent exhibit, 4,000 Year Road Trip: Gathering Sparks. (To learn more about this program, visit the Museum’s website.) This initiative resonated with our staff, as we have been working to develop creative ideas for how to develop new programs that integrate storytelling and oral history interviews for audiences of all backgrounds. This is definitely a program that we intend to learn more about as we move forward with our plans.

While many museums have been forced to cut back on professional development activities out of economic necessity, I am proud to work for an institution where professional development is still considered a priority. The benefits for both the staff attending as well as the institution are many – learning best practices from other professionals, gathering resources for programming and exhibit development, and meeting and networking with colleagues from other institutions.

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