Posted on April 29th, 2011 by Rachel
What was Lombard Street like in the early 1900s? When did Jews establish communities in Cumberland and Frederick? How do we memorialize loved ones who are no longer with us? Why do some Orthodox Jewish women cover their hair? This is just a sampling of the kinds of question the Museum’s exhibitions seek to answer. So how do we come up with the ideas for all the exhibitions we create?
The answers are as varied as our exhibitions.
Voices of Lombard Street: A Century of Change in East Baltimore (2007), our exhibition about the old Jewish neighborhood, was inspired by residential redevelopment around the Museum. Back in 2000, the public housing hi-rises were imploded and replaced with new townhouses suggestive of the old row houses that lined the neighborhood’s streets in its heyday. We thought it might be a good time to explore how the area has evolved over the years.
We’ve also looked beyond Baltimore. We Call This Place Home: Jewish Life in America’s Small Towns (2002) was a topic suggested by a Museum trustee from Frederick, who encouraged us to explore Jewish life outside Baltimore’s borders. The result was an exhibition that not only traveled to venues around the state, but also helped us build our collections of photographs and artifacts depicting Jewish life in small towns.
Some of our exhibitions are suggested by our more junior colleagues: Over lunch one day in about 2000, an intern from Beth Tfiloh Day School started musing about what Jews do when they go on vacation. The result? The Other Promised Land: Vacationing, Identity, and the Jewish American Dream, a major exhibition that opened in 2005 in Chicago, came back home to Baltimore, and then traveled to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York.
Intimacy. Image. Identity, which also opened in 2005, featured a series of photographs by intern Zoë Reznick, who shot the images as an undergraduate project. Her photographs explored the practice, among many Orthodox women, of covering their hair when they marry. Zoë wrote that her inspiration was to “examine the personal, material, and social implications of a tradition . . . and to capture the fine textures of scarves, the shapes of hats, the peculiarity and glamour of wigs.”
Then there’s our more recent exhibition, Her Inward Eye (2010), which brought together three suites of work by local artist Nancy Patz. The germ of that exhibition was a conversation I shared with Nancy, Curator Karen Falk, and Senior Collections Manager Jobi Zink. One morning, we sat in Nancy’s lovely, sunny studio discussing “18 Stones” a series of drawings and poems imaging Dutch Jewish lives before the Holocaust. Nancy told us that the works were traveling to Holocaust Museum Houston and asked if we’d like to host the show at the JMM before it headed out west. Unfortunately, the grouping was too big for our lobby and too small for one of our galleries. Then inspiration struck: Why not combine “18 Stones” with two other series of Nancy’s work? Like “18 Stones,” her illustrations from “Who Was the Woman Who Wore the Hat” were inspired by the tragedy of the Holocaust and explored the realm of imagined memory. The two series naturally complemented a group of works Nancy had created about her mother, who died prematurely. The portraits of her mother evoked a relationship re-imagined and reclaimed. Together, the three series examine the meanings of memory and imagination, exploring their role in the creative process.
Some of our farthest reaching exhibitions have the humblest beginnings. Our former curator, Melissa Martens, once observed that every time the staff got together, we seemed to talk about food. She figured that any topic that engaged us all that fully had to be worth an exhibition. The result of Melissa’s observation is Chosen Food: Cuisine, Culture, and American Jewish Identity, opening here this fall and then traveling nationally. Chosen Food will be a vibrant, interactive exhibition that uncovers and interprets the many meanings of Jewish food. It’s a new way of looking at the old adage: You are what you eat!
Most recently, I’ve been thinking about developing an exhibition about nostalgia. The idea for the exhibition grew from a simple premise: Our visitors want to see themselves in our exhibitions, so why not give the people what they want? Obviously, nostalgia has some negative connotations—for many historians, it’s a “dirty word”—but it also has its place in history exhibitions. I want not only to display objects of nostalgia but also to plumb the meaning of the term and tell people something about individual and collective memory, constructed memory, longing, and their place in historical discourse. Plus, the material culture of nostalgia is practically endless. Just think of all the Superman lunchboxes, Sandy Koufax baseball cards, and Pimlico Restaurant menus we can display—all that, with an Allan Sherman record playing in the background.
A blog post by Associate Director Anita Kassof.
Posted on January 10th, 2011 by Rachel
“Wonderful, wonderful. Everyone in Baltimore should see this exhibit.”
—Voices of Lombard Street visitor, 2010
Our exhibition Voices of Lombard Street had its third anniversary this past fall, though we didn’t do anything to celebrate it. We tend to take it for granted: it seems to be holding up well, it provides a good “core experience” for our visitors (museum-speak for… actually I’m not sure what that term is supposed to mean), and it enables us to focus our funds and our energies on other projects while keeping one gallery occupied.
Last week we replaced the exhibition’s filled-up visitor comment book with a new one, and I took the old one back to my office and looked through it. Reading the comments of visitors who, three years out, are confronting Voices for the first time, I was happy to see that people still are finding it a valuable—and even powerful and moving—experience.
Voices explores a century of life in the East Baltimore neighborhood surrounding the museum. It evokes immigrant Jewish life in the early to mid 20th century, then moves on to describe the process of urban change that occurred later in the century, and ends with a discussion of the neighborhood today. We wanted it to be thought-provoking as well as nostalgic—entertaining as well as substantive. And relevant to a wide variety of audiences. The comments suggest that we hit the mark—so I thought I’d take this opportunity to share them.
We wanted Voices to be relevant to people of different generations, cultures, and places of origin:
“This was the world of my grandparents and great grandparents—and was totally unknown to me until today. Thanks for keeping history alive for my generation.”—from Boise, Idaho
“I loved every picture, every minute. Maybe because I remember so much.”
“I attended the museum for credit for my Socl 141 class. Midway through, tears began to well in my eyes as I read the stories of immigrant Jews and the stories of other ethnic [groups]. I was not aware of the rich history of the Jewish, Italian, Irish, and African American community in Baltimore city.”— a non-Jewish Catonsville resident
“Brought tears to my eyes as this was the generation of my grandparents.”
“I have come here from Israel for this and it is worth it!”
“My son, age 4, was thoroughly engaged and asked me to read him many placards. Thanks for the kitchen utensils, sewing machine, etc. Beautifully done.”
“Oh do I remember. This brings back memories of my childhood coming to Lombard Street with my mother to get fresh chickens for the holiday.”
“I’ve lived here 80 years and learned new things today.”
“Excellent introduction for visitors to Baltimore.”—from a Knoxville, Tennessee resident
The original entrance to Weiss delicatessen, 1127 E. Lombard Street, prior to the fire that gutted it in 1985. Photograph by Elinor B. Cahn. 1985.031.005
We wanted to tell a compelling story that engages people intellectually and emotionally—that they can feel, hear, and sense:
“This exhibit comes to life as you stroll through. I felt as though I met the residents on Lombard Street. Great job!”
“The sounds were the best—really made the pictures come alive.”
“It captured wonderfully the atmosphere of a bye-gone age.”—from Lancashire, UK
“Many things you can relate to and identify with through personal experience, e.g. sugar sack night gowns.”
“We loved being able to interact with the exhibit.”
“Grabs your attention. A great experience.”
“Outstanding—nostalgia overwhelms me and I am left with a fuzzy warm heart.”
“Wonderful. For a moment I was again with my father.”
“I am amazed by the way you told such a compelling and relevant story almost entirely through the reminiscences of neighborhood residents. I loved it.”
Hand-tinted lantern slide of a man reading the paper in front of a store on East Lombard Street. Courtesy of the Ross J. Kelbaugh Collection. 1988.226.004a
We wanted to place the Jewish experience within the complex history of Baltimore as an ever-changing American city:
“It was really eye opening and put a real history to this district.”
“Wonderful! I never knew so much about Baltimore and I’ve lived here all my life.”
“A fabulous job telling the complex historical tale from all perspectives. We loved it!”
“I think you told it like it was…”
“So much to learn—wow! The parts about Martin Luther King were especially interesting.”
“I was particularly interested by the sections dealing with other communities in Lombard Street . . . a really well-rounded portrait of an area.”
“I’m surprised that the details of working class life were NOT suppressed. Good job.”
“The exhibit had wonderful 21st century insights.”
Two boys looking in the window of a butcher shop on East Lombard Street, 1963. Photograph by John McGrain.1995.187.016
We wanted kids to enjoy Voices. Here’s what some of them had to say:
“I especially liked the outhouse and bowl of chicken soup.”
“Scary and interesting.”
“Chickens were awesome! But I wanted to see fish!”
“The noises rocked. Loved the signs and quotes.”
“Very interesting… but the soup needs salt.”
“I thought it was amazing to see what we’ve actually been learning about in school.”
A girls ballet class, 1937. 1992.231.079
“This is the best museum I have been to in Baltimore! I thought the exhibition was excellent, mixing factual panels with quotes from local people and handling objects and activities for children—what a museum should be. . . . Thank you for putting together such a well-conceived and engaging exhibition!”—from a resident of Vienna
“Another hidden treasure of Baltimore.”
“This is an American Jewish treasure!”—from a resident of Los Angeles
“Fantastic exhibit. Even as a New York Jew I identified and could picture my ancestors going through similar trials, tribulations, and joys.”
“Wondrous! So much more than we expected.”
OK, you get the picture. The upshot is, if you haven’t seen Voices of Lombard Street, please come! I think you’ll like it.