Confronting “Difficult Knowledge” with Eastern State Penitentiary

Posted on May 31st, 2018 by

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

In early May, the management team of the Jewish Museum of Maryland took a trip to Philadelphia.

We spent time at the Eastern State Penitentiary, where I was surprised to find a restored synagogue. As interesting as that space was, it was not the most memorable I found at Eastern State Pen. For the most impact, I have to turn to what ESP staff calls “the big graph” and the small exhibit space they’ve carved out for Prisons Today.

Before I get to my experience of the graph and Prisons Today, let me back up to February of this year, when a number of the JMM managers attended the Council of American Jewish Museums conference in Washington, DC. (Read about our experiences here and here.) The conference theme was “Responsibility and Empowerment: A Civic Role for Jewish Museums,” and sessions explored the idea of museums as sites of conscience and as taking a stand. Rather than the “Dragnet” vision of museums of my youth (“just the facts, ma’am”), presenters at this CAJM conference invited Museums to take on the role of inspiring action—inspiring ‘upstanders’ to use the language of one of the featured institutions, the Take A Stand Center at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. Other featured sites included President Lincoln’s Cottage with their commitment to combatting contemporary slavery as a part of Lincoln’s legacy and…wait for it…Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP).

According to the representatives of ESP I heard at CAJM, the sprawling historic prison has served as a site for so-called “ruin porn” and haunted house experiences for most of its time as a tourist destination.

However, in recent years, staff and board have decided that they have a responsibility to use their platform to share a truth that is not always comfortable. They first developed the graph (see my picture below) a few years ago. It confronts the visitor with the reality of the current state of mass incarceration in America.

The “front” of the graph maps the surge in prison population over the past three decades. The side compares US prison population to other nations’ (spoiler: we outpace every single country in the world with the number of citizens we hold as prisoners).

The back of the graph shows the racial disparities among prison populations.

The graph is difficult to be with. The data was not surprising to me; I’ve read Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking work The New Jim Crow, and I have spent a lot of time learning and thinking about the systemic nature of the racial disparities in our criminal justice system. The graph was still difficult for me to be with.

Our tour guide at ESP that day, a member of ESP’s education staff named Sam, told us that their docents are all trained in facilitating difficult conversations.

She said the staff talks regularly about helping people to work through the “learning crisis” that is triggered by confronting “difficult knowledge.” In fact, ESP provides continuing education sessions to the whole staff about the process.

Our confrontation with “difficult knowledge” had only just started with the big graph. From the outdoor graph, we stepped into a well-appointed contemporary exhibition gallery for Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration, and were immediately met by this visually striking depiction of the reality of contemporary mass incarceration.

The visuals were backed up by strong language on the panels: “Mass Incarceration Isn’t Working.”

At every turn, this exhibit uses facts and striking visuals to drive home that idea. Interactives in the space invite people to think about their own experiences with lawbreaking, with ethical choices, and with the timeline of a single individual’s life.

One interactive features hand-written statements of people confessing to criminal behavior. Visitors are asked to guess which ones were written by people in prison and which by other museum visitors. (The answers are surprising.)

At another interactive, visitors are invited to “send a postcard to your future self.” You write three (email) notes, and the Museum ensures they are delivered in 2 months, 1 year and 3 years. They ask visitors to think about how the criminal justice system may have changed by the time the postcards arrive.

I found myself both saddened and energized by the Prisons Today exhibit. Saddened because of the “difficult knowledge” that our justice system is decidedly unjust, and energized by the forthrightness and unblinking way in which the museum had engaged the question. I did not find the exhibit preachy or self-righteous, but informative and thoughtful. Best of all, it used the strengths of a museum-learning experience—the IRL-ness of it all—to make clear both the societal reality of mass incarceration and the personal realities of individuals who are affected by mass incarceration.

I highly recommend a visit. The staff at ESP have taken on the task of helping their visitors through the learning crises of difficult knowledge, and they have risen to the challenge.

Their space is challenging—in the best possible way—without feeling judgmental. Even if a visit isn’t possible for you, you can take a virtual tour of the exhibit through the magic of the internet. This virtual tour is made available on the ESP website.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

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.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

The other JMM

Posted on April 11th, 2018 by

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

Almost exactly one year from now, we will be opening an exhibit we’re borrowing from the Jewish Museum Milwaukee (the other JMM), called Stitching History from the Holocaust.

We’re pretty excited about this show, which brings to life the innovative dress designs of Hedy Strnad, a soul and a talent lost to the Holocaust.

The other JMM is also very excited about this exhibit, and they are re-mounting the exhibit, with some enhancements, this spring. Coincidentally my sister, Emily, lives in Milwaukee with her family, and she invited me and my family to visit for Seder.

Beshert, I thought. I could go visit the exhibit IRL, and not just the link I shared with you above. I was to be in Milwaukee from March 29 through April 2. The other JMM opened the exhibit on April 8.

Womp womp.

I didn’t get to see Hedy’s dresses in real life. However, I did get to visit the other JMM, and meet some of my colleagues there.

They shared some of what they’re working on for future exhibits. I told them about some of our plans. We shared impressions of the recent CAJM conference in Washington, DC. I also had the opportunity to enjoy their core exhibition.

Since I was there with my 6-year-old daughter and my nephews who are 7 and 4, I wasn’t able to linger the way I might have (though my sister did an admirable job of keeping the kids occupied so that I could peruse. Thanks, Em!).

Even in my somewhat abbreviated time in the exhibit, I was struck by a few things:

I was reminded that Harry Houdini (with whom this JMM is currently deeply involved, as our original exhibit Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini comes together) spent some of his youth in Milwaukee.

I was surprised to read all about the German-Russian divide in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Milwaukee Jewish community. I am well aware of the same divide that beleaguered the Baltimore Jewish community (my family’s stories include the tales of my grandmother’s grandmother who immigrated from what was then Prussia and refused to speak a word of Yiddish, referring to the language as “cussing”). Somehow I naively thought that it was a past that was unique to Baltimore.

And I was taken with a visual family tree/timeline that the other JMM did about the Jewish congregations in the city, visually representing how different schuls splintered and splintered again.

Marvin often tells visitors about how many active congregations in the Baltimore area can trace their roots back to the Lloyd Street Synagogue. The other JMM created a kind of map of those connections (spoiler alert, I’ll be looking into creating our map in the coming weeks and months, so stay tuned).

In short, from JMM to JMM, it’s worth the visit!*


*Did you know that Premium-level JMM Members get free reciprocal admission to the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee, as well as at 11 other Jewish museums around the country? Become a premium-level member today!

Posted in jewish museum of maryland

« Previous PageNext Page »