Posted on January 19th, 2017 by Rachel
“Professional development takes many forms,” says JMM director, Marvin Pinkert, “whether or not ‘Museum Hack’ represents a path we might follow, in the future it is without doubt a ‘best practice’ in the field of museum tours. I was delighted that the whole professional team had the opportunity to experience it.”
The Museum Hack logo
Tracie: When I saw Nick Gray, the CEO of Museum Hack, give the keynote address at the Mid Atlantic Association of Museums (MAAM) in the Fall of 2016, I was intrigued. I had heard of the company before, but this was my first in-depth view of what this irreverent organization (their motto is “Museums are F***ing Awesome”) actually does. Gray’s address at MAAM was full of passion for museums and art. He was funny and crass and smart. He reported meteoric growth of his crazy idea (from hobby tours for his friends 5 years ago to a multi-million-dollar business today). The ballroom was full of museum professionals on the edge of their seats.
The Museum Hack motto takes no prisoners and its bright colors are pretty indicative of the exciting and invigorating experience JMMers were about to have.
His presentation wasn’t perfect. At a meeting whose theme was about the importance of inclusiveness and accessibility, the $90 – $150 per person price tag of Museum Hack tours definitely gave folks pause. Gray was only able to say something like “we’re working on it” to the conference attendee who asked him about how very white and mostly male his staff seemed to be. Still, it was clear to me that this kooky guy was on to something. When I got back to Baltimore I told my colleagues about it. We decided that we wanted to learn more. I suggested that we take the whole staff to a Hack Tour of the National Gallery—the closest Museum Hack location. Last week, we finally made it happen.
JMMers are ready and rarin’ to go on our Museum Hack adventure!
The Museum Hack tour was like and not-like any museum tour I’ve ever been on. From the get-go, our tour guide told us that art history, composition, symbolism and all that are really interesting, but that if that’s what we wanted, we should buy a book, because that’s not what she was going to talk about. From there we did a group, hands-in cheer of “Mu-seum!” (down on the mu up on the seum) and then took off from there to the crown jewel of the collection. We spent a little time talking about the subject of the painting, and then got a lot of history about how the National Gallery acquired it.
Hannah is positively gleeful as she relates the melancholy tale of Ginevra de’Benci.
The focus of our conversation about the rare Da Vinci painting of Ginevra de’Benci was the intrigue that surrounded it—from the “platonic” love affair that was broken off by Ginevra’s marriage to the James-Bond-esque suitcase in which it was transported to the museum (not unlike one that, as I type, is returning the Friedenwald volumes to the National Library of Israel!). We were invited to play mental and creative games with the artwork we encountered and with each other. In short, it was really fun.
In the few days since our National Gallery Hack, JMM staff have been having an ongoing conversation in various areas around Lloyd Street: “what if we had visitors…” and “we could invite people to…” I don’t know what the Museum Hack inspired, irreverent version of the JMM tour will look like. In fact, it may never happen. But even if there isn’t a direct product we can point to as a result of our shared experience, it has us all thinking about the Museum, our collections and our buildings in different ways.
Devan: As an artist and educator, I enjoyed the Museum Hack tour because it provided an opportunity to explore the works within the gallery while giving more backstory and historical information. In addition, I would imagine that interactive tours like those would be beneficial for young people who are visiting cultural institutions like the National Gallery of Art as well as others around the country. Not only would it spark more interest but assist with retention of the information so there’s at least one conscious or subconscious takeaway from the visit for them.
One of Devan’s favorite pieces of the day turned out to be Tracie’s selection for her museum pose!
Karen: I’ve already retold some of the stories we heard from our tour guide, Hannah, on Friday. The long, sad story of Ginevra de’Benci had too much detail for me to remember, but I got some great mileage out of how Paul Mellon, art collector extraordinaire, was taken in by Han van Meegeren’s Vermeer forgeries. Hannah kept us interested, and moving for two hours and the time flew, although I have to say I was very grateful when she took a break—and broke the rules—and handed out chocolate.
Shoes were in the way so off they come as Karen participates in one of the more kinetic activities of the day!
Some deductions about Museum Hack’s “rules” for tours that engage: 1. Use naughty words: every comedian since Lenny Bruce (at least) knows it thrills the audience; 2. Tell naughty stories (ditto); 3. Follow the money: isn’t this part of art’s allure? 4. Talk fast and walk fast; 5. Break the rules (see above: we must never, NEVER eat in the museum); 6. Have a through line—a story or activity that can thread throughout the entire tour; 7. Foster a little friendly competition, but not so much that your group can’t bond. Bottom line: I had a lot of fun!
The Repentant Magdalen
Deborah: As a mother who has watched the Disney film The Little Mermaid far too many times to count, I was particularly taken with the story that our amazing tour guide Hannah shared in front of the George De La Tour painting of Mary Magdalene (The Repentant Magdalen). Aside from the fact that the painting is stunning, Hannah connected the painting to a major plot point in the Dan Brown books surrounding a conspiracy to keep secret the fact that Mary Magdalene and Jesus had a child together. She then asked us to think about how this painting might be related to The Little Mermaid.
A conspiracy in action or just a good piece of art theory in practice?
We were stumped until Hannah pulled out her trusty iPad and pulled up the scene from the movie where Ariel is singing “Part of Your World” about her longing to be human in a cave where she’s stashed all of her human treasures. Lo and behold, one of the things in her cave is a painting of Mary Magdalene from the same series that we were looking at! (Specifically, the painting Magdalen with the Smoking Flame.) This detail (along with the fact that both De La Tour’s Mary and Ariel have red hair) has led to an abundance of conspiracy theories involving Disney.
Deborah also won the “find a new lover for Ginevra de’Benci” contest, with her entry of Mary Magadelene, theorizing that these two put-upon women could find support and affectionate understanding with each other.
Marvin: I was impressed with the way that our guide engaged the audience. One exercise involved finding potential companions for the unhappy young subject of DaVinci’s painting Ginevra de’Benci and capturing their images on our cell phones. Another involved creating a tableau vivant of Copley’s painting of a shark. While an art museum is very different than a history museum (the Lloyd Street ark doesn’t really lend itself to a tableau), the thought process about how to put the visitor into the action is something that I hope will animate our future thinking about tour experiences.
Presenting selections for Ginevra’s new match.
Graham: While I have been to the National Gallery of Art many times, I have mostly explored the galleries on my own, so I was excited to go on Museum Hack’s tour. I enjoyed hearing some of the backstories about how the art was acquired and shipped to the NGA. I also liked learning about a forged Vermeer painting, international intrigues and exploring hidden corners of the Museum. I found the tour to be very high energy and interactive. It was fun re-enacting John Copley’s painting Watson and the Shark and posing in front of sculptures. It was also entertaining playing games like imagining romances between figures in artwork.
Joanna and Trillion present their best ballet legs in the Degas gallery.
I liked how our guide incorporated technology into her tour, such as with her iPad and our smart phones. I appreciated receiving chocolate halfway through the day as a way to help alleviate “museum fatigue.” I believe that these kinds of tours are a great way to reengage millennials at museums. I look forward to working with our team to see how we may be able to incorporate some of these elements into our tours of Lloyd Street and B’nai Israel synagogues.
Joanna: The Museum Hack tour was a lot of fun, and not only because it’s always better to be in an art museum on a Friday. I’m not usually a tour-taker, but Hannah’s style – presumably typical of the Museum Hack guides in general – was informative, funny, brisk, and colloquial, making for both an entertaining morning (any morning that involves a tableau vivant is likely to be a good one) and a nice validation of my own style of tour-giving, which if not brisk is definitely colloquial.
JMM does its best Watson and the Shark – what do you think, did we pull it off?
That’s not everyone’s cup of tea, of course, but used in combination with more traditional formats, I think this type of tour can bring in new audiences, and give us a way to tell other, less academic or “main theme” stories about artifacts, art, and documents. But please, no tableaux vivant in the JMM galleries without making sure there’s plenty of floor space!
Trillion: Working in public programs I was especially excited to attend the Museum Hack tour last week at the National Gallery of Art. I was hoping to find inspiration for future programs and I wasn’t disappointed. One of the things I found most enjoyable was the different ways in which we were encouraged to engage with the collection. Knowing a little about Museum Hack I anticipated posing beside art and recreating famous paintings as a team (technically referred to as tableau vivant) but what I found really interesting was our search for a suitor for Ginevra de’ Benci. It was a wonderful way of ensuring that we continued to explore and engage with the many pieces not featured ono our tour. As we shared our selections at the end of the day it was interesting to see artworks that hadn’t previously caught my eye.
Here’s Trillion’s selection for a new partner for Ginevra de’ Benci painted by Jean Siméon Chardin.
Rachel: I’ve been to the National Gallery many times before – it’s one of my favorite places in DC to grab a few moments of calm and delight (I particularly love the many fountains and their related, ever-changing plant accessories – this time there were tiny potted orange trees with actual oranges on them!). I’ve even been lucky enough to get a specialized tour from Art Services Manager Daniel Shay (his daughter, Ginevra Shay, now the artistic director at The Contemporary, was once my winter intern in the photography collection!). But it is always fun to get a new perspective on a familiar favorite – and Museum Hack did not disappoint.
Hannah and The Alba Madonna.
Being a “behind-the-scenes” type museum person, I especially enjoyed Hannah’s tales related to The Alba Madonna, including the Soviet sale of Hermitage paintings – and Russia’s desire to “borrow” the painting back at the end of the century. (If you meet Hannah, ask her about Titian’s Venus with a Mirror and its Russian reception!) Overall I loved the blend of facts about the pieces of art themselves with the stories of their journeys to the National Gallery.
Collections Manager Joanna blanches at the description of transferring The Alba Madonna from its original wooden backing to the canvas it lives on today – it was quite a piece of mad, experimental conservation science!
Based on our post-tour lunch conversations and the many murmurings around the office, I think we can declare our Museum Hack experience a success!
Posted on May 27th, 2016 by Rachel
Last year, the JMM was approached by George Washington University requesting that the JMM be a host site for graduate students enrolled in Experiential Education and Jewish Cultural Arts program, the first program of its kind in the country. Our museum would serve as a setting for graduate students to learn how Jewish museums provide experiential learning opportunities to our visitors, both students and adults.
Shoshana at work
We were very lucky to meet Shoshana Hirschhorn, a Michigan native, via Charlotte, North Carolina to DC/Baltimore. Shoshana took the train from DC twice a week to the JMM for her internship. Shoshana always comes to work with a smile on her face-awaiting the day’s new challenges.
Last Thursday was Shoshana’s last day of her internship with us at the JMM. She is off to spend the summer at her second internship with Yeshiva University Museum. We wish her well and look forward to her visit with us at the end of the summer!
-Ilene Dackman-Alon, Education Director
Working at a museum is an exciting experience where no two days are ever the same. The past eight months at the Jewish Museum of Maryland have been wonderful!
Coming to the Museum having been an elementary school teacher in a large urban school district and a Hebrew school teacher, I was curious to see how the JMM accommodated both of these groups of students. As an intern at the JMM, one of my primary responsibilities was to help with school groups and school programs. I helped to design education resources in connection with the exhibitions, Paul Simon: Words & Music and the Beyond Chicken Soup: Jews & Medicine in America. I also had the opportunity to help design two of the specialty tours of the Lloyd Street Synagogue. The first, the Sounds of the Synagogue tour, looked at the Synagogue in the context of the Paul Simon exhibition, focusing on music and sounds heard throughout the building’s life as both a synagogue and church.
Ilene puts on her “history detective” accessories for the Book, Bell, and Candle tour.
The second tour came about in connection with MADE: In America and the naming of the Carroll Mansion as the 2016 All American House. I, along with another intern, other members of the Education Team, and Executive Director, Marvin Pinkert, researched and developed a concept for the tour to accompany the Lloyd Street Synagogue’s title as the All American Synagogue. This tour looks at the material culture of the building, including information about the designers, builders, and crafters involved in the construction of the building. The exciting twist is that this tour allows visitors to take on the role of “history detective” as certain mysteries remain regarding the specific items discussed on the tour. The lingering questions are ones we were unable to find answers to during the research phase, so they in turn became part of the experience. The visitors can help the Education Team think of different places to look or alternative ideas as well as come up with their own questions they would like answered.
The research behind this tour was extensive, searching through numerous newspaper articles and contacting specialists, while hitting multiple dead ends along the way. Curiosity propelled my search, which made things difficult when the idea was to leave the tour open ended came up. I still wanted to know – who brought the original Torah used by the congregants? What happened to the bell? What did the first Ner Tamid look like? Hopefully this curiosity for knowing the story behind the objects translates to the visitors and they too become interested in the origins of the parts that make up the Lloyd Street Synagogue.
A Clue Card
The projects and programs I have worked on have shown me the power of education in museums and their ability to bring learning to life. The most rewarding part of my time at the Museum was the direct interactions with the children visiting the JMM on school field trips and helping to guide their educational experiences.
The greatest lessons I have learned here are the practical need for flexibility and the importance of connecting museum activities to classroom learning. Coursework from my program in Experiential Education and Jewish Cultural Arts at GW has supported me throughout this internship.
Blog post by education intern Shoshana Hirschhorn. To read more posts by and about interns, click HERE.
Posted on May 23rd, 2016 by Rachel
While being a Navy wife can have its ups and downs, last week was a definite up. Chief Petty Officer Guy-Decker had temporary duty orders that sent him to the island of Oahu in the state of Hawaii.
He was to be busy with some super-secret operations of which we mere mortals may not know. To support his world-saving activities, the US Navy provided a plane ticket, a hotel room in Waikiki, a rental car and a per diem food allowance. What can I say? I tagged along.
I found Hawai’i to be among the most beautiful places I have ever seen. I had my breath taken away by the beauty of the landscape more times than I can count. I also found it to be instructive in ways I could never have anticipated.
There’s no denying the natural beauty.
On my second full day on the island, I decided to take in some history. My husband had the rental car with him on the Naval station, so I hopped a city bus into downtown Honolulu. My destination was the Iolani Palace. This magnificent residence, completed in 1882 is the only royal residence on American soil.
The front of Iolani Palace.
Taking a tour of an historic building, how could I not think of the LSS? I first noted the cool lanyard-encased iPods the palace handed all of the visitors. Along with a set of headphones, this device allowed me to take a self-directed tour of the building.
But the content of the tour is what really affected my thinking.
As I entered the ornate building, my feet clad in the provided booties to protect the floors, the helpful guide in my headset pointed out the etched glass windows, imported from France, the inlaid wood with hardwoods imported from Italy, the fine china, imported from England. “What the Heck!” I thought. “He had so many amazing natural resources right here in Hawai’i. Why did King Kalakaua use all of that European stuff?”
Just as I was disdaining this 19th-century royal, my iPod guide invited me to stand at what was the front door in 1882 and imagine myself a visiting dignitary from Europe. Look at the grand staircase and up at the electric lights. Electric lights, my digital host, pointed out, in 1882—before either the White House or Buckingham Palace could boast of electricity.
And looking at those literal light bulbs, the proverbial one lit above my head.
I apologized to his majesty Kalakaua in my mind. “I get it! You had to prove that Hawaiians were not ‘savages.’ You had to prove to the white Europeans who coveted your land that you were equals.”
And immediately I thought of our beloved Lloyd Street Synagogue, with its imposing columns. As you would learn if you were to take our All American Synagogue, Bell, Book and Candle tour, the synagogue was designed by non-Jewish architect, Robert Cary Long, Jr., a professionally-trained architect who was known for designing beautiful churches.
I’ve sometimes wondered that this church-building non-Jew was the architect of choice. But of course, Baltimore’s Jewish community also felt the need to prove they were not “savages.” When LSS was completed, it was fewer than 20 years after Maryland’s “Jew Bill” passed, allowing non-Christian (or at least Jewish) individuals to enjoy the same rights as Christian citizens. And only 15 years earlier, in 1830, the governor had had to intervene against obstructionist lawmakers to allow the congregation to officially incorporate.
In the case of the 19th-century Hawaiians, as with the Jewish community of Baltimore about 40 years prior, they were working to prove themselves to be not just as “civilized,” as the Europeans and their Christian neighbors, but twice as “civilized.”
The difference between the two communities is that the Baltimore Jewish community more-or-less succeeded; the Hawaiians’ story is more complicated. King Kalakaua’s successor, his sister, Queen Lili’uokalani (notably, the composer of possibly the most famous Hawaiian song, “Alaho Oe”) was deposed by a coalition of “Hawaiian-born citizens of American parents, naturalized citizens and foreign nationals” (i.e. no Hawaiian natives) with the support of the American Minister to Hawaii. Two years later, after a defeated uprising in her defense, Lili’oukalani was imprisoned in her own Iolani Palace by her opponents. It wasn’t long before the islands were formally annexed by the United States.
Perhaps because of my Lloyd Street Synagogue-Iolani Palace epiphany earlier in the week, when we attended one of the many luaus that take place every night, I felt the sense that I was in a place I didn’t really belong. I was keenly aware that the version of the culture I was viewing was caricaturized and then commodified for my benefit.
The luau dancers
I kept imagining what the Jewish equivalent of a luau might be. As our host on the bus ride to the beach-location taught us words in Hawaiian (“’aloha’ means ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye.’ It also means ‘love’”), I started to imagine the “oneg” party we might throw for tourists. “’Shalom’ means ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye.’ It also means ‘peace.’” I imagined the costumed dancers doing the horah; the giant pots of cholent and chicken soup and mounds of challah loaves.
My imagination replaced the dancing hula dolls intended for dashboards with davening yeshivah boys, and it made me a little nauseated. I felt in my bones how one-dimensional the Judaism of this tourist party would be. My beloved, rich, thick, complicated religion/culture/ethnicity reduced to slogans and bobble heads.
Can you imagine Yeshiva boys instead?
And yet, even (especially?) in its caricaturized, commodified form, the Hawaiian picture is so pretty, so pleasant. I couldn’t resist getting a selfie with the smiling hula dancers who waited by the hotel bus for just that purpose.
Smiling with the dancers
A blog post by Associate Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.