The Power of Museums

Posted on March 7th, 2018 by

This month’s edition of Performance Counts comes to us from Deputy Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.

I was recently reminded of the power of museums.

On February 26 and 27, several colleagues and I travelled the 40 miles south to Washington DC for the convening of the annual conference of the Council of American Jewish Museums. On Monday morning, the keynote address was from Kinshasha Holman Conwill, Deputy Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Ms. Conwill’s address was at the same time casual and compelling. She went off script long enough to joke with her audience about Black Panther and stayed on message consistently enough to deliver quotations verbatim. She invoked prophets—biblical and modern—from Isaiah to Martin Luther King Jr., Amos to Abraham Joshua Heschel. She recommended books and movies and articles. She shared successes of her museum.

But it was a phrase all her own that gave me pause. I jotted it down in my notebook: “acts of terror and fear connect Jews and Blacks in America.”

In a story to punctuate acts of terror and fear, she described the demoralizing experience of a noose being found in the galleries at the NMAAHC, in the same general time-period as the nation watched white supremacists in Charlottesville chant “Jews will not replace us” while marching with tiki torches.

As one, those assembled held our breath as we shook our heads in dismay. She told us about where and how the noose was found, and what the response was from her staff. And then she went on to relate the feeling of watching museum colleagues—from the US Holocaust Memorial and Museum, the Museum of National History, Air and Space, American History, National Gallery, and others, march up the National Mall to stand in solidarity with her and her colleagues.

She described the warmth of the day and the warmth of her heart knowing that museums exist, in part, to stand against the kind of cowardice that would leave a symbol of fear and violence in a public space. I could feel myself and my fellow audience members exhale our held breath. The reality of the noose was still with us, but our response, as museum professionals and as human beings, restored hope.

The story was real for me. It evoked strong emotion.

It was nothing compared to what I experienced the next day.

On Tuesday, I started my day at the US Holocaust Memorial and Museum. 

On an abbreviated docent-led tour of the Museum, I was struck by the presentation of Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, when thousands of Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues were destroyed. The USHMM displays the remnants of a stained glass window from a synagogue destroyed on Kristallnacht along with large scale before and after photos of the sanctuary.* I was struck by the well of emotion the object invoked in me.

Later in the day, I attended Ms. Cornwill’s museum, the National Museum of African American Culture and History. 

In the section about the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, I made a point to look closely at the photos of the four girls who were lost, and then as I turned a corner, I was confronted once again by broken stained glass. The NMAAHC displays fragments of a window destroyed by the bomb that took those four children’s lives.**

Acts of terror and fear connect Jews and Blacks in America.

A small shudder ran up my spine. If Kinshasha Cornwill’s words gave me pause, these two stained glass windows, exhibited in museums on the same National Mall, made it real. In that shudder, I was reminded of the truth of the proposition of museums: things matter; experience is not the same as information.

In that shudder, I was strengthened in the hope and the conviction that museums can be a part of the change I want to see in the world.

More and more, our museum colleagues are realizing that though what we do is not partisan, it is political. Our visitors are not just learning information for their own use and edification. They are living experiences that, if we do it right, help them to become better human beings. With a nod to our colleagues at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, if we do it right, our visitors will not be bystanders but upstanders. I look forward to continuing to walk this path at JMM.

 

*From the USHMM: “The shattered stained glass windows of the Zerrennerstrasse synagogue after its destruction on Kristallnacht.” More info here.

**From the NMAAHC: “Stained glass from the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was donated by our colleagues Ann Jimerson (1963 Kids in Birmingham) and Joan Trumpauer Mulholland (SNCC veteran). Learn more here.”

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




JMM Joins City’s Celebration of American Design and Manufacture

Posted on April 6th, 2016 by

Last year, the organization MADE: In America designated the Carroll Mansion as its “All American House” for 2016.  From April 23 to July 7, 2016 the Carroll Mansion will be transformed into a showcase for some of the most innovative manufacturers and craftsmen in Baltimore and across the nation.  The city expanded the celebration by inviting partner organizations in what it’s calling the “Baltimore’s American Treasures” event.

The Carroll Mansion, 2016's "All-American House"

The Carroll Mansion, 2016’s “All-American House”

Located just a few blocks away from the Carroll Mansion in Baltimore’s oldest neighborhood, Historic Jonestown, is the Jewish Museum of Maryland (JMM).  To play our part in the celebration we’re hosting special events in recognition of the Lloyd Street Synagogue as a truly All American Synagogue.  Built in 1845, the Lloyd Street Synagogue is the third oldest Jewish house of worship still standing in the United States.  The building was designed by Robert Cary Long, Jr., a prominent church architect of the era.  Nearly every component of the original building and its 1860 renovation were the result of American craft and manufacture from the stenciling to the wooden pews to the stained glass Star of David.

The Lloyd Street Synagogue

The Lloyd Street Synagogue

The museum has spent the winter researching the material history of the building – which switched hands multiple times, serving first as a traditional German synagogue, then as a reformed temple, later it became a Lithuanian Catholic Church and finally a Russian Orthodox shul.  Each iteration brought new design elements into the building, holy arks and altars, mezuzot and an organ.  We’ve sifted through the records to identify some of the most interesting stories of how this site was designed and built to serve the needs of successive waves of immigrants.

The oldest extant photo of the Lloyd Street Synagogue. Courtesy of the Ross J. Kelbaugh Collection, JMM 1997.71.1

The oldest extant photo of the Lloyd Street Synagogue. Courtesy of the Ross J. Kelbaugh Collection, JMM 1997.71.1

Not every story has been easy to trace.  Where did the synagogues first Torah scroll come from?  What was the origin of the church’s bells and where did they go when the church was sold?  How did church chandeliers end up hanging from the ceiling of an Orthodox synagogue?  Questions like these led to the idea of our “Book, Bell and Candle Mystery Experience” (offered each Sunday from May 1 through July 7 at 3pm).  Our expert history sleuth will transport you into the shoes of a researcher on the trail of holy artifacts.  Made in America? Or lovingly imported?  Only one thing is certain – “it belongs in a museum” – the Jewish Museum of Maryland.

Chandalier inside the Lloyd Street Synagogue

Chandelier inside the Lloyd Street Synagogue

We’ve set three Sundays aside for activities related to design work for the whole family.  On May 1 our focus is on crafts related to the building itself.  It includes a closer look at the stained glass windows and the art behind them.  On May 29, our “Welcome to Jonestown” free family day will feature crafts related to music in the synagogue.  Finally, on June 26, we will offer demonstrations of specialized skills required to manufacture the artifacts of the synagogue – from a sofer  (scribe) illustrating Hebrew calligraphy to a blacksmith making fencework.

Leaded glass window. East wall. Over ark. Lloyd Street Synagogue- Baltimore. restored 1964. IA 1024.

Leaded glass window. East wall. Over ark. Lloyd Street Synagogue- Baltimore. restored 1964. IA 1024.

Come see how the Lloyd Street Synagogue and its congregations fit into the fabric of America’s material culture.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Standing in Hurva Square, in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, we learned about the Hurva Synagogue.

Posted on February 23rd, 2011 by

The Hurva, whose name means “ruin,” was initially built in the 18th century.  It was destroyed shortly thereafter and then rebuilt in the mid 19th century.  It became Jerusalem’s main Ashkenazi synagogue but was destroyed again in 1948 by the Jordan Legion a few days before the fall of the Jewish Quarter in the War of Independence.

Its reconstruction was completed in 2010.  It has been rebuilt in the same Neo-Byzantine style as the original.

Hurva Synagogue, 89 ha-Yehudim Street Old City of Jerusalem

The stained glass windows, although different, reminded me the ones in the Lloyd Street Synagogue and B’nai Israel Congregation.

Stained glass window at the Hurva Synagogue.

One of the stained glass windows of the Lloyd Street Synagogue, IA 1.187

Stained glass window in B'nai Israel Synagogue, pre-restoration, IA 2.66

Posted in jewish museum of maryland