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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Portrait of Fredericka Herstein; or, an afternoon down the rabbit-hole of historical research

Posted on October 28th, 2015 by

Here at the JMM, some of our portrait collection is hung on move-able racks in one of our storage rooms, meaning there are certain faces that greet you when you access the archives.

Collections Storage Room 2, JMM, on a Tuesday

Collections Storage Room 2, JMM, on a Tuesday

Last week, thanks to the position of the racks, one of our 19th century ladies caught my eye several times; when, coincidentally, I came across her catalog record, I decided to delve into a little research on her history.

Fredericka W. Herstein, mid 19th century, donated by David Herstein. JMM 2005.60.1

Fredericka W. Herstein, mid 19th century, donated by David Herstein. JMM 2005.60.1

This is Fredericka (also known as Frädche) Wiesenfeld Herstein (1797-1873), painted by an unknown artist. Family information tells us that she was born and raised in Germany; her first husband, Joseph Wiesenfeld, died around 1820; by 1824, she had married Meyer Herstein. Immigration records show that in 1854 Meyer and Friedrike (Fredericka) Herstein, along with their daughter Bertha, traveled from Bremen to New York on the Hansa. Shortly thereafter they made their way to Baltimore, where their son Nathan may have already been established as a clothing manufacturer. Meyer died around 1858, and the 1860 census shows Fredericka living in the Baltimore household of Nathan and his young family. She died in 1873 and is buried in the Oheb Shalom Cemetery, Baltimore, as Fradche Herstein, “our beloved mother.”

At first glance the painting itself is not terribly informative. It is unsigned, with no inscriptions to tell us the date, sitter’s name, or place.  On the other hand, it is in great condition and in a relatively modern frame, telling us that over the years Fredericka’s portrait was well cared for as a treasured family heirloom. Looking more closely, the image gives a few other clues to her story – not many, but enough to start the speculation engines.

The donor suggested this was painted in the 1840s, and the fashion – a gown with dropped shoulders and wide sleeves, and the sitter’s center-parted ringlets – could support that. However, a few factors (including the high, straight waistline) make me think it may be from the late 1850s, when those details would still apply, but would make up a slightly different silhouette if we were seeing her at full length.  (Here are two summaries of mid-19th century fashions, from the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, if you’re interested.)

As much fun (seriously!) as it is to parse out the various details of a subject’s attire, when dating old photos and paintings it is important to remember that just because the fashion prints for a particular year are showing haute couture, not everyone adopted those trends immediately (or ever).  What was hot in New York or Paris might not make it to the seamstresses and tastemakers of far-flung cities for quite some time.  And who among us hasn’t clung to a comfortable and/or flattering garment, in defiance of shifting hemlines and changing color palettes?  Fashion and clothing style are good clues, but they don’t always provide the definitive answer we’re looking for.

Detail view of Mrs. Herstein’s brooch. JMM 2005.60.1

Detail view of Mrs. Herstein’s brooch. JMM 2005.60.1

Speaking of color palettes, that’s another telling element of this painting: the black gown and black lace cap indicate that she’s likely dressed in mourning, at least to some degree.  The brooch pinned to the center of her collar features the image of a man, currently unidentified and perhaps the object of her grief.  While it could be a son, or another recently deceased relative, or even her first husband Joseph Wiesenfeld (who died around 1820), I’m inclined to think it may be her second husband Meyer Herstein, who died in 1858.  If so, then this was painted in the United States – possibly even in Baltimore – in the late 1850s, when she was herself in her early 60s, which I think matches her apparent age and fashion choices.

…And this is the tipping point of the slippery slope that should be avoided, or at least approached with caution, by imaginative Collections Managers.  I can (and have!) come up with lots of theories and scenarios for the subjects of this and other portraits, but while entertaining, they shouldn’t be taken as anything other than speculation. In reality, I know that my reasoning is a trifle circular (1850s makes sense for the dress, so it must be Meyer’s brooch, so it must be the 1850s), and that there’s lots more research to be done before we can suggest with more conviction when this was painted, and under what circumstances.  But that’s the fun of historical research! There’s always something else to look up, and more stories to uncover.

Fredericka asks: What do you think? JMM 2005.60.1

Fredericka asks: What do you think? JMM 2005.60.1

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

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The American Society of Human Genetics Comes to Town!

Posted on October 16th, 2015 by

Baltimore’s downtown was filled with more doctors than usual last week, as the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) held its annual meeting at the Convention Center. Though I’m not a real doctor, I dropped in to do some on-the-ground research for the “laboratory” section of the JMM’s upcoming exhibit, Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews and Medicine in America. Most of the attendees were laboratory scientists who study the genome. Some look for markers of future illness, while others use genes to piece together the history of human populations, both topics that we’ll touch on in the exhibit.

Alicia poses with the conference catalog.

Alicia poses with the conference catalog.

Translating basic scientific research into medical applications used to be a slow process, but in genetics it’s become almost instantaneous: studies reveal a gene linked to a disease, and screening providers add the new marker to their massive and growing catalogues of potential maladies. On the surface this seems like a great development, but medicine is still figuring out how to understand and act on genetic risk.

Part of the ASHG meeting was an enormous expo of genetic technology companies, from big names like Affymetrix to garage start-ups. Roaming the booths to collect contemporary genetics ephemera, I was intrigued by the variety of services on offer. There’s big money in biotech, but who’s making sure that these innovations actually help patients?

Conference swag: Everyone loves an assertive pin.

Conference swag: Everyone loves an assertive pin.

The ASHG also includes genetic counselors and bioethicists whose job it is to integrate new technologies into medical practice with respect to patients’ rights and social values. I spoke with one clinician, Dr. Sophia Hufnagel, who specializes in pediatric genetics; she works with children and their families to make sure that they understand and consent to testing, and helps them interpret the results.  Her research explores how young people feel about the ethical questions that their elders sometimes try to protect them from.

The teenagers who Dr. Hufnagel surveyed didn’t want to be shielded from the results of genetic testing (at least in a hypothetical scenario). Many said that knowledge of an inherited risk “would help them plan for the future,” or even lead to scientific research that might produce better treatment. Hufnagel observed that many adolescents “have adequate decision-making capacities” and could be granted more agency in their own medical treatment. From a clinical perspective, though, it’s impossible to make hard-and-fast rules. “I’m a huge advocate for partnership” with patients and families, Hufnagel explained. “Everything has to be case-by-case.”

Conference Swag: Cute mascots, or, the mole who collects and stabilizes your biological samples.

Conference Swag: Cute mascots, or, the mole who collects and stabilizes your biological samples.

This notion of “partnership” kept popping up in my perambulations through the convention center. Interestingly, it got lots of play in the technology expo, where company reps described their approach as “partnering” with physicians, patients, and genetic counselors. This seemed to reflect the professional norms of bioethics that Hufnagel described. At the same time, there’s a different logic at work for corporations that sell genetic testing services. Their profit and competitive advantage comes, in part, from creating the desire to know everything one possibly can rather than protecting “the right not to know” that Hufnagel carefully defends for her patients. This desire plays on popular perceptions of scientific authority and genetic determinism that don’t capture the complexity and uncertainty of current medical genetics.

This new industry is still forming – the FDA intervened in 2013 to halt direct-to-consumer (DTC) sales of medical genetic tests by the company 23andMe, mandating that physicians request such testing. Just this year, the agency changed course and approved 23andMe’s DTC test for Bloom Syndrome, opening the gates for companies to market over-the-counter screening products for a wide range of diseases. FDA administrator Alberto Gutierrez said that Americans should have “direct access to their personal genetic information… [which] supports innovation and will ultimately benefit consumers.” I met a lot of people who will benefit from this ruling, prowling among pipette displays and novelty pens at the ASHG expo. But the implications for consumers seem far more ambiguous.

Conference Swag: Genetic testing companies like this one provide preimplantation genetic screening of human embryos, plus humorous stress balls to help you cope with the dystopian future.

Conference Swag: Genetic testing companies like this one provide preimplantation genetic screening of human embryos, plus humorous stress balls to help you cope with the dystopian future.

As part of our preparations for Beyond Chicken Soup, I and curator Karen Falk have been sketching out interactive ethical scenarios for museum visitors rather like the one that Dr. Hufnagel posed to her study subjects: would you want to know the results of a genetic test if it could reveal an untreatable condition in your future?  The goal isn’t to get a “right” answer, but rather, as Hufnagel underscored, to reflect on your personal priorities: what level of knowledge would you feel comfortable with? Hufnagel’s work brings out an important dimension to these questions: when would you want to know? “The big worry [with teens],” she explains, “is that they can’t unknow it – they have that knowledge for the rest of their life.”

Conference Swag: Chocolate with a candy shell promotes "innovation in clinical and process data management."

Conference Swag: Chocolate with a candy shell promotes “innovation in clinical and process data management.”

Questions of how well people understand risk, how much they want to know, and what technology can really tell us will only get more complicated as the biotech industry flexes its muscle and scientists burrow deeper into the genome. Look out for the genetics section of Beyond Chicken Soup, where we explore the history of genetic screening in the Jewish community and the directions it’s taking today.

Alicia PuglionesiA blog post by Assistant Curator Dr. Alicia Puglionesi. To read more posts about our Beyond Chicken Soup exhibit click HERE.

 

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