Hanging Out in Philadelphia

Posted on September 5th, 2019 by

A blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. You can read more posts by Marvin here.

I spent the last week in August in Philly.

It wasn’t exactly a summer vacation, more of a busman’s holiday. I had been invited to attend a feedback session on the Community Catalyst Initiative being developed by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). This was followed, two days later by the annual meeting of the American Association for State and Local History. In between, I had a chance to visit the Marvel: Universe of Super Heroes exhibit at the Franklin Institute, the recently developed Philadelphia Holocaust Memorial Plaza, the Barnes Foundation and the new Museum of the American Revolution. I skipped NMAJH, Eastern State Penn and the Philadelphia Museum of Art on this trip, because I had visited those fine museums earlier this year.  I also met with former JMMers Avi Decter and Melissa Yaverbaum, who send warm regards to all their friends in Baltimore.

What did I learn from my sojourn to the city of brotherly love? Let me start with the friendly neighborhood Spiderman (pictured above) – one of several life-size figures in the exhibit positioned as photo opportunities. While the exhibit contained many original pieces of artwork, original artifacts from the movies, film clips and interactive devices, it was these statues that were the clear stars of the show. People came to the exhibit because they were interested in the stories of the Marvel characters, but they were even more interested in seeing themselves as part of that story. In many ways, the “theme” of the week was self-reflection in public spaces.

That theme could certainly be found in the demonstration of Augmented Reality (AR) in the Rare Books room of the Free Library of Philadelphia. There we were treated to a prototype of a new software package that combined a search for clues with AR icons as a reward. For example, finding three clues related to Edgar Allan Poe would make a squawking 3-D raven appear on your screen. Visitors could then put themselves into the picture, appearing to hold or pet the raven. The software, designed by Night Kitchen Interactive in Philadelphia, is something we might think about incorporating into a future core exhibit. I found an earlier version of what was demonstrated at the library at this online site.

The idea of a virtual presence was also an important part of the development of the new Philadelphia Holocaust Memorial Plaza.

Built on the site of America’s first Holocaust Memorial (a statue by sculptor Nathan Rappaport) right on the Ben Franklin Parkway, the plaza allows visitors to access the voices of Holocaust survivors tied to both the textual and aesthetic elements of the space. These pillars, for example, compare the US Constitution to the legal and social systems of the Third Reich. Voices accessible on your phone via the iWalk app allow you to hear witnesses of the deprivation of liberties in Germany. Yet another idea we might build on.

The Museum of the American Revolution is well worth a visit. While it remains at its core, a museum of military history, it goes out of its way to tell the battle story through multiple perspectives: loyalists as well as rebels, native peoples and African Americans, and women in many different roles. It benefits from a corps of knowledgeable docents who are proficient at tailoring the experience to the interests of their audience.

This map of North America at the start of the Revolution is typical of the scale and scope of their presentations.

Lest you think my week was all fun and games, there was serious business at both conferences. The IMLS workshop offered participants the opportunity to test and review new tools under development for helping museums engage with their communities. Tools like “Journey Maps” (sample below) help institutions to track and evaluate projects that involve substantial community engagement over a period of years.

We’ll be using this type of tool to map the development of our Evolution Plan.

The AASLH Conference was co-sponsored by the Sites of Conscience organization, an international coalition of more than 275 historic sites and museums dedicated to “turning memory into action.” The title of this year’s conference, “What are We Waiting For?”, was a reference to the desire of much of the history museum world to engage in the tough work of swimming in the troubled waters of our times, paired with the fear of drowning in contemporary controversies.

One of the best workshops I attended at the conference was on “dialogic conversations” – a methodology for engaging visitors in difficult conversations in the hope of opening up channels for discourse in a polarized nation. Hint: the method involves asking questions that make the visitor a part of the story. Some of this thinking may be incorporated into future JMM exhibits and programs.

So last summer was Houdini and this summer was Spiderman – I can truly say I get my best ideas just “hanging around.”


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Travels with Grace: The 1926 Sesquicentennial Exposition

Posted on May 7th, 2019 by

Welcome to this week’s segment of our 2019 #TravelTuesday series: Traveling with Grace. This week, Grace and her family take a short visit form Baltimore to the neighboring city of Philadelphia for the Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition of 1926, which “was a world’s fair in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Its purpose was to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the signing of the United States Declaration of Independence, and the 50th anniversary of the 1876 Centennial Exposition.” -via.


1926 Sesquicentennial International Exposition logo, Philadelphia, PA. Via.

Monday Oct. 11: We took the party electric car and rode around the exposition grounds. Visited Liberal Arts Bldg. Rode up High St. replica of the that old historic thoroughfare where was held a colonial parade in full pomp and pageantry. Had an excellent dinner at the Russian Pavilion, then visited the Fine Arts and India Bldgs. And Treasure Island.

“Despite the many authentic historic sites in Philadelphia, a newly constructed Colonial High Street on the Sesquicentennial grounds became one of the popular attractions of the fair.” –PhillyHistory.org

Tues. Oct. 12 Visited a model of U.S.P.O. and Agriculture Bldg., Palace of Education. Dined at French restaurant. Visited Transportation Bldg. and Gladway. In the evening watched gorgeous display of fireworks around fountain with colored lights. Mr. Marks conducted us thru his model shoe factory.

Map of the grounds of the 1926 Seaqui-Centennial Exposition, Philadelphia, PA. Via.

Wed. Oct. 13 Visited the Pittsburgh Bldg. where they showed movies of the city’s industrial expansion. Paid a second visit to High St. where we saw the first school house, Washington’s home, Paul Revere’s smithy, a collection of dolls from every state and watched a performance of marionettes in a miniature theatre. The play was based on a domestic episode revolving about a tube of toothpaste. It was in 3 acts. Act I. 4 weeks after marriage. Act II. 4 months after. Act III 4 years after. A Town Crier announces the attractions on High St. Next we visit the Persian, Cuban, and Spanish Bldgs. Saw an aviatrix do daredevil stunts. Visit Florida and Penna. Bldgs.

“Bird’s Eye” view of the 1926 Sesqui-Centennial Exposition Grounds (Courtesy of the Bruce C. Cooper Collection). Via.

Thurs. Oct. 14 Lunch at Wanamaker’s. Took a trip in Grayline Bus to Valley Forge National Park passing Bryn Mawr college en route. Interesting tour of historic park.

Contents of Bldgs.

Persian Bldg. Silver – copper – jewels – rugs – shawls

Spanish Bldg. Paintings – tapestries

India Bldg. Mother-of-Pearl, Ivories, inlaid screens and tables, jade, precious stones, exotic scents

Liberal Arts Bld. Tiles (model baths and kitchens) (1 bath cost $6000), Radios, vacuums, [vetaphone?] picture of telephone industry (one of the first I have heard), Publishing houses display some of their finest editions including elaborate gold leaf works. Grolier Society among others. Wanamaker’s exhibit showing evolution of the flag. An Indian composer plays his work on violin in native costume. Displays of furniture and frigidaires which are now coming into popularity. Wallpaper and [lincrusty???] displays in model houses.

Fine Arts Bldg. Old and modern schools of painting, sculpture, bronzes, heroic status, wood carvings, tapestries. Many of Jules Massbaum’s fine collection on display.

“While Philadelphians had argued over competing visions for the fair and a celebration of culture or commerce, both impulses could be seen in Sesquicentennial exhibits such as this display by a Japanese trade association.” – PhillyHistory.org.

Commercial – Foreign. Japanese silk worm cultivation. Satsuma – Cloisinne products, exquisite colorings. A pagoda built entirely of real pearls and platinum which drops into a trick stage at night. Dolls and furniture from Spain – embroiders and peasant costumes from Czecko-Slovakia, glassware from Hungary, clocks and jewelry from Vienna, wedgewood pottery from England and Titania’s fairy palace.

Transportation Bldg. Trains, boats, aeroplaens, earliest and laters models. Many kinds of food displays.

Education Bldg. School systems on model plans, Farm School, Roosevelt Memorial Association health centres, camps, schools for blind, Y.W.C.A. groups, Zionist, Council of Jewish Women, manual therapy, forest preservation, sanitation, domestic science, art, athletics, traffic signals. One is thankful to rest in a little non-sectarian chapel, flower filled, a haven of quiet in which to think over it all.

Thanks for reading “Traveling with Grace,” a series where we’re sharing (and annotating) posts from the travel diaries of Grace Amelia Hecht, native Baltimorean, b. 1897 and d. 1955. Next week we’ll pick up with a new diary from 1929! As mentioned in my introductory post transcription errors sometimes occur and I’ve made my best guesses where possible, denoted by [brackets]. – Rachel Kassman, marketing manager

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A Surprising Find at Eastern State Penitentiary

Posted on May 2nd, 2018 by

A blog post by Deputy Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.

On Monday, April 23, the JMM management team (Marvin, Tracey, Joanna, Ilene and me) piled into Ilene’s car and drove to Philadelphia.

We made the trip to visit our colleagues at the National Museum of American Jewish History and at the Eastern State Penitentiary. Both institutions provided engaging and meaningful experiences, and both provided surprises. I will leave some stories for other posts (and maybe other writers), and focus here on what I found the most surprising about Eastern State Penitentiary: its synagogue.

The historic prison has a beautifully restored synagogue in its midst. I was surprised when our tour guide first mentioned its existence, and my surprise was only compounded when we stepped into the space.

The small room is paneled in a dark wood not unlike our own Rosen-Salganik Board Room, with a simple but decorative ark in one corner and a golden star of David medallion on the ceiling.

The original synagogue door shows the ghosts of two stars of David that used to adorn it.

The space had been built in the early 20th century. “Were there a lot of Jewish prisoners here?” I wondered aloud. Our tour guide informed me that when the synagogue was completed in the 1920s, about 80 of the 1400 prisoners there were Jewish. Rather than a pressing demand for Jewish religious expression among the prisoners, the Eastern State synagogue was built by the broader Philadelphia Jewish community. Likewise, the gleaming, restored space was made possible by the contemporary community.

Once we had had a chance to take in the space, our guide asked for our help flipping down a long section of paneling. As the section flipped down on a long piano hinge, exhibit panels were revealed, presenting the history of the space and of Jewish life at Eastern State.

We had fun comparing historical photos to the contemporary space in which we stood, and were all intrigued to read that the first Jewish clergy to visit Eastern State did so in 1845, the same year our own Lloyd Street Synagogue was born.

Also on display in the synagogue space was a small crowd-sourced display, Share Your Mitzvah.

The Eastern State staff created cards that allowed visitors to share mitzvahs done either by them or for them. They’d also created cards for children to draw pictures to share their stories of good-deed-doing or -receiving. I was impressed with both the sentiment of the display and the low-tech efficiency of it.

In fact, don’t be surprised if one day in the not-too-distant future JMM asks for similar crowd-sourced reports of good-deed-doings.

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