Gaining Perspective from 1,000 Miles Away

Posted on October 1st, 2014 by

St. Paul

A beautiful shot of the St. Paul Skyline!

A week before Rosh Hashonah, Education Director Ilene Dackman-Alon and I attended the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) conference in St. Paul, Minnesota.  The trip had many virtues – a chance to see some truly innovative museums, a chance to renew and develop acquaintances with colleagues and collaborators, and perhaps, most important, a chance to think about the directions we are taking at JMM through the lens of innovations happening elsewhere in the country.

st-paul-image

What a great conference poster – does anyone know the artist?

The tone for the conference was set by keynoter, Garrison Keillor.  He peppered his folksy (and irreverent) stories of the history of the state with observations about the museum enterprise.  Paraphrasing Tip O’Neill, he observed that “all history is local” and that those who try to sweep human experience into great global generalizations are probably sharing as much fiction as truth.  “The 60s may have been about drug, sex, and rock ‘n roll in parts of New York or San Francisco”, he noted, “but in small town Minnesota the 60s was all about moving into the middle class.”  I reflected on our Mendes Cohen exhibit at JMM and thought, actually “all history is biography” and every human life has the potential to illuminate its times.

Feature exhibit at the Minnesota History Center:  Toys of the 50s, 60s and 70s.

Feature exhibit at the Minnesota History Center:
Toys of the 50s, 60s and 70s.

I attended 7 workshops and presentations during my two and a half days in St. Paul.  These included:

“Creating Connections:  Integrating STEM Learning into History Exhibitions and Programs” – a collaboration of the Science Museum of Minnesota and the Conner Prairie historic village outside Indianapolis.  Conner Prairie recently took a big leap outside its comfort zone, training its history docents to facilitate visitor-driven exploration of historic technologies.  We worked in groups to develop model exhibits.  Ilene’s group was turning architecture into an engineering lesson.  My group worked on letting visitors “put together” a 1910 electric car.

Workshop at the Science Museum of Minnesota.

Workshop at the Science Museum of Minnesota.

Directors Breakfast – turned out to be a perfect complement to the session above.  The focus of the breakfast was “how do we build a political coalition strong enough to promote history in the way that scientists promote STEM?”  They had some interesting ideas and I expect that I will participate in future forums on this topic.

My favorite artifact - We definitely need something like this in our collection.

My favorite artifact – We definitely need something like this in our collection.

“Blurred Lines:  Museum as Community Center” – This session looked at four specific program innovations at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle (outdoor film festival, evening socials for young adults, yoga in the museum and after school tech clubs).  They talked about successes and failures, but even more interesting, the process of assessing successes and failures.  I think that as we increase our community outreach there is much to be learned from the experience of others.

“Seeing the Forest: A National Perspective on History Organizations” – this was a straightforward (and slightly depressing) set of research results from NEA and AASLH.  It told a story that was not terribly surprising – after holding their own through the first electronic revolution (the Internet of the 1990s and early 2000s), museums were now experiencing a significant decline in attendance during the period 2005 to 2013 (the era of the smart phone and social media) – actually all physical contact with the arts – attending concerts, art galleries, dance performances as well as participating in creative arts activities are declining.  The only uptick in “arts” creation was a boom in photography (perhaps those smart phones).  Of course, these are averages – and any individual institution can figure out a way to buck the trend.

Paul, Babe, me and Mendes at Minnesota History Center. One way to get people to recognize the front of the museum!

Paul, Babe, me and Mendes at Minnesota History Center. One way to get people to recognize the front of the museum!

“Blink” – Local Baltimore/DC consulting group QM2 was invited by the Massachusetts historic properties trust to perform an activity inspired by Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink.  They were given 36 hours at each of three historic sites to assess and suggest new directions for reawakening public interest and growing attendance.  The idea was to not get bogged down in all the impediments of “we’ve tried that before” or “management won’t let us do that” and make constructive snap judgments.  It seemed like an interesting experiment.

“Talking about Religion in History Museums” – Three speakers looked at the challenges that the topic of religion generates, not only in public museums, but even in religious-sponsored institutions.  There was discussion of why most museums are willing to host exhibits on religious practice but few are willing to have any discussion of religious belief.  Even small differences of opinion on belief can easily escalate into institution-threatening conflict.   The panelists had some great examples.

“Support Young Children, Grow Future Audiences” – our own Ilene was joined by speakers from the Smithsonian’s Center on Early Learning, a museum in San Antonio and the still-to-be-built National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall.  The topic was how history museums could relate to our youngest visitors (ages 3 to 7).  Call me prejudiced, but I thought Ilene’s presentation was outstanding and really reminded me that we can hold our own even with much larger institutions when it comes to educational innovation.

Mill City Museum: The ruins of a flour mill destroyed by fire are transformed into a first-rate history experience.

Mill City Museum: The ruins of a flour mill destroyed by fire are transformed into a first-rate history experience.

Living History Actress plays 1940s "Anne Pillsbury" at Mill City Museum

Living History Actress plays 1940s “Anne Pillsbury” at Mill City Museum

Lest you think I spent all my time in sessions, some of the highlights of the trip are documented in the photos below.  I had the chance to explore the beautiful Minnesota State Capitol building, the first major project of architect Cass Gilbert, now under restoration.  I went back to the Minnesota History Center, on everyone’s short list of the best history museums in the US and also had the chance to visit their newest project, the Mill City Museum.  In 1991 an abandoned flour mill, once the largest in the world, was nearly destroyed by fire.  Instead of tearing the building down the folks at MNHS turned into an extension site and, in my opinion, perhaps the finest single topic museums ever.  Combining clever exhibit design (an elevator ride that seems to owe a lot to MSI’s Coal Mine and Disney’s Tower of Terror), extensive research, live performance, great use of artifacts and the ruins of the building and some great exhibit filmmaking – I would rate this as a “must see”, even if you never thought you had an interest in making flour.

Detail from the ceiling of the Minnesota State Assembly - it was breathtaking.

Detail from the ceiling of the Minnesota State Assembly – it was breathtaking.

And of course I brought my trusty Flat Mendes with me!

And of course I brought my trusty Flat Mendes with me!

If I had to describe the conference in one word, it would be: “inspiring”.  I am glad I could take you along for a little bit of the ride.

Marvin PinkertA blog post by Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts from Marvin click HERE. Interested in knowing more about AASLH? Check out their website, http://www.aaslh.org/ or follow them on Twitter!

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




Greetings from the New Collections Manager!

Posted on September 29th, 2014 by

Greetings, blog readers! My name is Joanna Church, and I’m the new Collections Manager at the JMM.  There’s something a little nerve-wracking about starting a new job; before starting here, I wondered: What will the office be like? How tricky is the commute? Will the new colleagues be pleasant? And is there a coffee maker?* For those of us who work with museum collections, however, there’s one almost-guarantee when joining the staff of a new museum: The collections themselves – no matter what they actually are – will be interesting.  In my few weeks here at the JMM, this has definitely proved to be true.

I am a Maryland native, but new to Baltimore. Searching our database for something first-blog-post-appropriate, I found a foam hat that says “Welcome to Baltimore.” Thank you, hat!

1992.190.001, front view

1992.190.001, front view

This old-fashioned hat, with a four inch high crown, was made around 1990, mimicking the style of a circa 1900s boater (right down to the ‘woven straw’ look to the molded foam). The printed paper ‘ribbon’ around the crown reads in full, “Welcome to Baltimore UAHC NFTS ’91.”  The donor, E.B. Hirsh, was one of thousands of delegates to the Union of American Hebrew Congregations/National Federation of Temple Sisterhoods biennial convention, held in Baltimore from October 31st to November 5th, 1991.

1992.190.001, front view

1992.190.001, side view

According to the Baltimore Sun there were plenty of important issues discussed at this meeting of representatives from over 850 Reform synagogues. Nevertheless, what’s a convention without a party? Our hat and its welcoming message have an opening-day-festivities vibe, suggesting that there were opportunities for fun amidst the more serious activities.  (If any readers attended the conference and can share some info, please do!)

As for the type of hat itself, straw boaters or “skimmers” were popular summer headwear for men and women in the late 19th – early 20th centuries. Here are a few Baltimore residents sporting the style in 1924:

Abe Sherman, his father Moses, and two unidentified men at Abe Sherman's newsstand in Battle Monument Square, August 1924. Donated to the JMM by Brig. Gen. Philip Sherman. 1989.021.001

Abe Sherman, his father Moses, and two unidentified men at Abe Sherman’s newsstand in Battle Monument Square, August 1924. Donated to the JMM by Brig. Gen. Philip Sherman. 1989.021.001

By the 1950s, however, the boater had dwindled from everyday garb to costume, and it is most likely to be seen today on members of a barbershop quartet; actors in a production of, say, “The Music Man;” or attendees at a political rally. Though I can’t tell you exactly why a boater became appropriate convention-wear, it’s enough of a stylistic trope that plastic and Styrofoam hats are marketed specifically for these events.  Our example was manufactured in the U.S. by the Lewtan Line, a company founded in 1947 by Marvin Lewtan.

…As you may have guessed by now, things are my thing. I look forward to sharing more of the stories and histories of the JMM’s fabulous artifacts, images, and archival records!

 

*Answers: Great; not bad so far; absolutely; and (thankfully) yes.

JoannaA blog post by Collections Manager Joanna Church.

 

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




JMM DATEBOOK: September 2014

Posted on September 24th, 2014 by

Happy New Year from the JMM!

1991.009.005 small

1991.9.5 May you have peace, substantial earned income, good business success,enjoyment, happiness, salvation, pleasantness and everything good. – Rosh Hashonah greetings in Yiddish and Hebrew from August 30, 1917.

We have the perfect way to start the new year off right – by helping the Museum THIS SUNDAY at the Maryland Public Television telethon from 5pm – 8pm. We have gathered a core group of volunteers but could still use more help! Volunteers only need to answer phones for people calling to pledge and take down their information. Plus MPT will be providing kosher meals for all our volunteers.

This is an important opportunity for the Museum to reach out to a broad audience and particularly to share the news about The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen exhibit. To volunteer please email Rachel Kassman (rkassman@jewishmuseummd.org) by NOON on Sunday, September 28th and join in on the fun!
L’Shana Tova!

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




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