Renewal and Revival: Indecent and the Education Department

Posted on July 5th, 2017 by

Blog post by Education Intern Sara Philippe. To read more posts from JMM interns, past and present, click here.

 

This past weekend, I saw the Broadway show Indecent in New York City. It is a play about God of Vengeance, a Yiddish play written by Polish Jewish writer Sholem Asch in 1907 that was performed across Europe in Yiddish, and eventually in the United States where it was translated into English and performed on Broadway, and then again in Poland during World War II where it was performed in an attic in the Lodz ghetto. The show is a powerful testament to the power of art and theatre, especially in its capacity to preserve history and make it relevant in the present. It is proof that what may seem a mere remnant or artifact, is in reality, a leaving, breathing thing. Among other things, Indecent brings to life the Yiddish language and its near-extinction as a result of assimilation of Jews in the US and the Holocaust in Europe.

The opening scene of Indecent. Captions are written in English and Yiddish or Hebrew throughout.

The opening scene of Indecent. Captions are written in English and Yiddish or Hebrew throughout.

It is in this effort to tell stories that are in danger of being lost that Indecent reminds me of my work at the JMM. As Education interns, Erin and I have been working on an educational resource for the upcoming exhibit Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage, which involves us in work guided by the same overarching principle that values history and heritage for its perpetual importance. In designing activities that will allow students of all ages to have more enjoyable and meaningful experiences of the exhibit, we have endeavored to treat every aspect of the contents of the exhibit as a reflection of living people and traditions as well as of people and traditions that existed in the past. Indecent’s writer Paul Vogel, and its director Rebecca Taichman, emphasize their desire to connect the material of the play to ongoing questions of xenophobia and immigration, for example, that pertain to the present day just as much as they did in early 20th century America. They tackle these issues in explicit terms and make no attempt to tell the story of God of Vengeance as if it has ended.

As we work towards a comprehensive education reference, our goal is always to encourage the future users of the resource to see the artifacts displayed in the exhibit as more than artifacts. A badly damaged schoolbook written in Arabic and used in Iraqi Jewish schools is not a collation of pages, but rather an opportunity to discuss efforts to ensure the survival of Judeo-Arabic, spoken by Iraqi Jews, and other minority languages that may be under threat. A tik, the Torah holder used in Iraqi Jewish communities becomes an opportunity to marvel at the evolution and varied uses of language, as we create an activity that asks students to re-interpret the word “tik” through actually making their own tik inspired by what they have learned about the word’s modern-day uses in Hebrew.  The story of the anti-Jewish pogroms in Baghdad in 1941 that led many to flee their native country, are an opportunity to consider minority persecution and displacement of peoples around the world and in Iraq today.

A tik from the Iraqi Jewish Archive.

A tik from the Iraqi Jewish Archive.

The stories of the past that animate Indecent as well as the Iraqi Jewish Archive offer us so much more than just a look at a time and people gone by. They are evidence of the resiliency of any people and the continuing desire we have to discover and recover, and to turn a richness that could have been lost and relegated solely to the past, into art and education. What I am learning in the Education department is the importance of turning everything behind a glass wall in an exhibit into a living creature with meanings and implications that must not be forgotten. Though it is often impossible to bring back to life what has been lost or destroyed, it is possible to enrich the lives of people today using the creations of the people of the past.

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Book Preservation: Tips to Care for your Home Library

Posted on April 13th, 2016 by

– Keep things cool. Books are most comfortable at temperatures close to 65 degrees.

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Our rare book collection is housed in our temperature controlled collections storage rooms.

– Turn out the lights. Direct light, particularly sunlight, can cause books to discolor and become brittle.

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Discoloration

– Give them breathing room. Squeezing books tightly onto a shelf can cause wear and tear on the covers.

Protect covers by not squeezing volumes together

Protect covers by not squeezing volumes together

– Handle with care. Remove a book by gripping the center on either side of the spine. Tipping a book off the shelf by pulling from the top of the headband can damage the spine.

Damaged spine

Damaged spine

– Size things up. Arrange books on a shelf according to size so they can support each other. Lay large volumes flat to avoid stress on the spine.

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Another peek at our rare book shelves

– Tape is not your friend. Tape causes additional problems that are difficult to reverse. Consider acid free storage containers or consult a conservator.

Tape damage

Tape damage

For more information: https://www.nps.gov/museum/publications/conserveogram/19-02.pdf

Post by Collections Intern Melissa Caples.

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Exhibit spotlight: The Cohen family’s wine cooler, early 19th century

Posted on April 20th, 2015 by

The artifacts on display in “The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen” exhibit are few, but fabulous.  Take, for example, this early 19th century silver-plated wine cooler, from the Cohen house on North Charles Street, Baltimore.

JMM# 1978.30.4, donated by Florence H. Trupp.

JMM# 1978.30.4, donated by Florence H. Trupp.

Donated to the JMM in 1978 by Florence H. Trupp, this 11 inch cooler is in excellent – if tarnished (more on that in a moment) – condition. It is unmarked, but was likely made in Sheffield, England, where many factories turned out a wide variety of silver-plated tableware and decorative items in what came to be known as Sheffield Plate.

Wine coolers were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Both functional and decorative, they were available in a variety of styles and materials, including silver, silver-plate, glass, ceramic, and wood; take a look at some examples in the collections of the Met, here. Our particular artifact was originally one of a pair, intended for use on the table in the dining room (or other party venue), each holding a single bottle. Crushed ice would be packed into the base and covered by the canister-shaped liner or insert, leaving the bottle sitting cool and dry inside the liner.

With the insert removed.

With the insert removed.

 “Wine Cooler with Bottle,” Anonymous, Italian, 19th century.  From the Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1953, Metropolitan Museum of Art. www.metmuseum.org

“Wine Cooler with Bottle,” Anonymous, Italian, 19th century. From the Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1953, Metropolitan Museum of Art. www.metmuseum.org

The donor informed us of the artifact’s history at the time of donation.  The Cohens were one of the first Jewish families of Baltimore, and they were members of the city’s social elite. A wonderful description of a fancy dress ball, given by Benjamin I. and Kitty Etting Cohen in 1837, can be found in a letter written by Rebecca Lloyd Post Shippen to her mother; Mrs. Shippen focused mostly on the important guests in attendance, but she also described the house itself:

“You remember that everything about the house is rich and expensive . . . . The principle Table extended the length of the Room, decorated with beautiful China, cut glass and Silver . . . . [Everything was] served in the best style.”  (Published in the Maryland Historical Magazine, Volume XIV, 1919.)

“The best style” certainly applies to this artifact. The campana (bell or urn) shape was a popular form; other fashionable elements include the shell handles, and the gadrooning around the collar and base.  When polished and gleaming, holding the best selection from your wine cellar, it would have been an impressive part of a well-set table.

A close-up look at the gadrooning around the top edges of the insert.

A close-up look at the gadrooning around the top edges of the insert.

That certainly lends credence to the idea that this particular piece belonged to a well-to-do family like the Cohens.  Even better is the fact that our cooler matches, almost exactly, the description found in the catalog of the 1929 auction of the Cohen household’s effects:

 “224. Pair Sheffield Wine Coolers. Urn shape on baluster foot. Handles with shell gadroon. All parts complete. Gadroon motif about foot and edge of mouth. Part of Judith Cohen wedding presents. 18th century. Height 11 inches. Width 11 inches.” From the catalog for the sale of “The Antique Furnishings of the Cohen House,” 1929.  JMM# 1984.20.2, donated by Arthur J. Gutman.

“224. Pair Sheffield Wine Coolers. Urn shape on baluster foot. Handles with shell gadroon. All parts complete. Gadroon motif about foot and edge of mouth. Part of Judith Cohen wedding presents. 18th century. Height 11 inches. Width 11 inches.” From the catalog for the sale of “The Antique Furnishings of the Cohen House,” 1929. JMM# 1984.20.2, donated by Arthur J. Gutman.

(It is worth noting that the cataloger, Robert Frank Skutch, assigned too early a date; this style is more typical of the 1810s-30s than the 18th century.  Sadly, that rather negates the wedding gift story, since Judith Solomon married Israel I. Cohen in 1787.)

The multi-day auction was covered by the Baltimore Sun in a series of articles; unfortunately, not every item caught the reporter’s attention, so I’ve not yet discovered the purchaser of the Sheffield wine coolers, nor their final price. (I did learn, however, that a delegate sent by Henry Ford – yes, that Henry Ford – got into a bidding war with Manny Hendler over a pair of lamps. Mr. Ford won.)  The newspaper reports indicate that the auction was a big deal both locally and in the broader antique-collecting community, in part because of the age and quality of the items up for sale, but also because of the Cohen family’s prominence in the city.  As Skutch noted in his Introduction to the auction catalog:

“The Cohen family from the beginning of the last century maintained open house. Here, mingled the culture, public spirit, and social grace of early Baltimore. Fine living was an inborn characteristic of this family, and they maintained a home worthy of the best traditions of Baltimore, and of Maryland.”

…As for the wine cooler’s current lack of shine, there is a good reason for it.  Silver is, in its way, quite fragile; the polishing and buffing you give your household pieces can be extremely damaging over time, and museums are particularly careful with their silver goods.  Removing tarnish actually removes a layer of silver, which is definitely to be avoided with silver-plated items; the mechanical process of handling and cleaning an artifact is an opportunity for accidental damage; and any polish residue – or even water – left in the nooks and crannies of decoration is both unattractive and harmful.

Left-over polish residue can be seen in the details of the handle’s shell motif.

Left-over polish residue can be seen in the details of the handle’s shell motif.

In an ideal situation, silver and silver-plated items are initially (and gently) polished, then stored and/or displayed in appropriately tarnish-inhibiting environments, thus minimizing the need for future cleaning.  In this case, however, the wine cooler was already in a tarnished state, and our exhibit design did not allow for an elaborate case; tarnish would have built up again over the months the artifact was on display.  Rather than create a need for multiple polishing sessions, we concluded it was safer to leave it be for now.  Though the visual impact is somewhat diminished, the wine cooler’s elegant form, expensive material, and general “extra”ness (what, you think I’d just put the bottle on the table? Oh no! I’ve got a fancy silver container!) nonetheless help us illustrate the Cohen family’s important position in Baltimore society.

Come see the Cohen family’s artifacts – and read the entirety of Mrs. Shippen’s letter – in person! “The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen” is on display at the Jewish Museum of Maryland through June 14, 2015.

JoannaA blog post by Collections Manager Joanna Church. To read more posts from Joanna click HERE.

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