Posted on November 23rd, 2015 by Rachel
If you were tasked with coming up with a concept for a new core exhibition project that would tell the story of Maryland Jewish history for audiences of all ages and backgrounds, one that integrated new technologies and featured innovative exhibition design strategies, where would you start? One way to begin the process is to take a look at model exhibit projects across the country and to speak with leading museum professionals in search of inspiration. I was lucky enough to take part on a three-day fact finding mission to Minneapolis and St. Paul to do just that.
The JMM has recently embarked on the planning process to develop an exhibit that will replace Voices of Lombard Street. Our vision is to create an interactive exhibit that engages diverse audiences in learning about the many nuances of Maryland Jewish history, that highlights our outstanding collections and is truly a 21st century exhibit, meaning that it takes advantage of new technology and theories of how best to engage visitors through design.
Members of our exhibit advisory committee have spent the past few weeks traveling to other cities in search of innovative projects to help inform our project development and planning. In the beginning of the month, I had the privilege of visiting the Twin Cities with two other committee members, Program Committee Chair, Jerry Macks and Anita Kassof, Executive Director of the Baltimore Museum of Industry (and former Associate Director of the JMM). During our three day trip, we visited six museums, enjoyed the famed Midwestern hospitality (while not enjoying quite as much the cold weather) and took lots of notes. Here are some of the highlights of our trip.
Our first stop was the American Swedish Institute (www.asimn.org), which is located inside an early 20th century castle built by a Swedish immigrant who became a newspaper magnate. The museum’s entrance is in a modern visitor center built recently to house a beautiful and inviting gift shop, café and public program space. The museum definitely had its charms including the beautifully handcrafted interior design features as well as friendly and knowledgeable volunteers. The third floor of the house contained exhibits on such topics as the history of Swedish immigration to Minneapolis (we would have loved to have learned this info earlier in our visit) as well as on Swedish hospitals and music. The ASI’s mission to serve as a cultural center for people of all backgrounds, including many new immigrants who currently reside in Minneapolis, resonated with us and spoke to the significant role that ethnic specific museums can play in their communities.
One of many elaborately tiled fireplaces at the American Swedish Institute.
Next up, the Bakken Museum (www.thebakken.org), a quirky museum founded by inventor Earl Bakken to house his collection of medical equipment and electrical devices. The museum’s exhibits feature an abundance of interactive displays that delight visitors of all ages and teach about an array of scientific principles. One of the things we most enjoyed about the museum was its promotion of social experiences among visitors through activities that involved more than one person.
For example, at Benjamin Franklin’s Electricity Party, one person turned cranks while another grabbed a metal bar to light sparks and ring bells.
Another highlight was the Cabinet of Curiosity that featured favorite artifacts from the museum’s collections selected by staff, volunteers and board members. It was fun to read why individuals selected the objects that they did and a nearby iPad provided additional information about specific artifacts.
Cabinet of Curiosity
The next day was spent in St. Paul which is situated a mere 8 miles from Minneapolis across the Mississippi River. Our morning was spent at the impressive Minnesota Science Museum (www.smm.org/). The highlight of the visit was having the chance to meet with Paul Martin, Senior Vice President of Science Learning, who shared with us his vast knowledge about exhibit design and visitor engagement. It was enlightening hearing Paul’s observations about the many factors that play into visitors’ experiences and what kinds of things we should be taking into consideration as we begin planning our new core exhibit. Paul also kindly showed us around the museum’s exhibits which gave us the chance to see how these theories play out in an array of exhibit spaces. Most impressive were the Collector’s Corner where visitors are encouraged to bring in specimens from nature that they can research and, if they like, swap what they’ve brought for something else in the exhibit as well as a temporary exhibit that helps visitors explore and understand complex mathematical principles.
Minnesota Science Museum
We also had the chance to see the groundbreaking exhibit, Race: Are We So Different? that challenges conventional notions of race. We left after three hours feeling energized and inspired.
From there, we walked a short distance to the Minnesota History Center, which contains exhibits exploring Minnesota history. Our initial impression was, honestly, not so great. It was a little difficult to find our way around and the first two exhibits we saw were packed with school kids. While we were impressed with the experiential nature of the exhibits as well as the many opportunities for hands-on engagement, we found them lacking in interpretation.
Although there definitely were some cool interactives such as stations where visitors could scan QR codes found on objects to learn more.
We persevered, however, and moved on to a quieter section of the museum where we experienced a beautiful exhibit honoring the lives of Minnesota’s “Greatest Generation,” the men and women who lived through the Depression and World War II. Another enjoyable exhibit explored the science behind Minnesota’s weather. As it was a rather chilly day (at least Anita, Jerry and I thought so – we were shocked to see people walking about without coats!), it was interesting learning about the extremes of weather that Minnesotans experience (and made me appreciate living in Baltimore much more).
For our last day, we ventured back to Minneapolis for one of the coolest museums I’ve ever visited. Mill City (www.millcitymuseum.org) is operated by the Minnesota History Center and built on the ruins of what was once a booming flour mill. In the cavernous space, visitors learn about the importance of the milling industry to Minneapolis’s history and the role that the Mississippi River played in its development. The museum experience takes advantage of its location by completely immersing visitors in the factory environment of a flour mill and one of its most unique (and fun) activities is an elevator ride that delivers the history of the mill through recorded oral histories and period sets that are revealed as the doors of the elevator open onto different floors. The elevator lets visitors out on the top floor where there is an observation deck that provides stunning views of the river.
View from Mill City.
The exhibit on the lower level of the mill includes a thorough history of the milling industry complete with a variety of interactive activities (many of which are low tech), a working kitchen where volunteers provide baking demonstrations (this is one of the few museums I’ve experienced that includes both smell and taste as integral parts of the visit) and a brief but informative film that provides an overview of Minneapolis’s history.
Mill City lower floor exhibit
Although we were somewhat fatigued after spending so much time visiting museums, our flight home didn’t leave for a few hours so we decided to add one more non-history /non- science museum to our tour and visited the Walker Art Center (www.walkerart.org), a leading contemporary art museum. Our visit happened to coincide with the first Saturday of the month which is their free day so the place was teeming with visitors, many of whom brought their children for the variety of hands-on art workshops. While it was refreshing to have the chance to view art (and the collection is outstanding), we were definitely feeling a little overwhelmed and museumed out, so we did not stay too long.
All in all, Jerry, Anita and I were thrilled to have the chance to see such a variety of outstanding museums. We came away with many terrific ideas that will certainly inform our exhibit planning process.
A blog post by Deputy Director Deborah Cardin. To read more posts from Deborah click HERE.
Posted on July 28th, 2015 by Rachel
Consider an excursion to the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) in Philadelphia. Located in the Old City, near the Liberty Bell, this 100,000-square-foot, glass-and-terra-cotta-cloaked building explores the history of Judaism in the United States from the 1600s until modern day.
I visited the Museum last month to explore my Jewish heritage and to see how we can improve our own visitor experience services at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. At the National Museum of American Jewish History there are three floors of interactive state-of-the-art exhibits, focusing on the theme of American Freedom, with each floor offering a historical chapter: “Foundations of Freedom, 1654-1880,” “Dreams of Freedom, 1880-1945” and Choices and Challenges of Freedom, 1945-Today.”
My visit to the Museum gave me an opportunity to learn why Jews immigrated to America, the choices they faced, the challenges they confronted and the ways in which they assimilated into American culture. I was excited that the Baltimore Jewish community and the establishment of our own Lloyd Street Synagogue was included in the “Establishing Communities” exhibit. As I grew up near Newport, RI, I was fascinated to read more about the Touro Synagogue and learn about how some Jewish merchants were connected to the slave trade. The Civil War portion of the exhibit mentioned the debate between Rabbi Bernard Illoway of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and Rabbi David Einhorn of Har Sinai Congregation in Baltimore. Throughout the core exhibit, I was impressed by the inclusion of evocative objects such as a Dutch record from 1654, depicting one of the earliest references to Jews in North America, as well as immigrant belongings, Jewish themed movie posters, and expressions of political and social issues ranging from the push of equality for Jewish women within American society and the fight for gay marriage.
Establishing Communities Exhibit
The exhibit ends in the present day with the opportunity to share your personal views in two high-tech, interactive experiences: Contemporary Issues Forum and It’s Your Story. The Contemporary Issues Forum asks the visitor to respond to questions such as “Should religion play a role in American politics?” There are also video recording stations called, It’s Your Story, where you can respond to questions such as “What is the most valuable thing you learned at summer camp” or “share your favorite holiday tradition.”
The “Only in America” Gallery, located in the lobby area, contains images and artifacts honoring 18 Jewish-Americans selected by voters on the internet. I was honored that they included Louis Brandeis, from my alma mater Brandeis University. The lobby level also contains a small installation on “The Pursuit of Happiness: Jewish Voices for LGBT Rights.” There is also a first rate gift shop (with a fantastic book for sale on the core exhibition which I purchased).
I am happy to report that I developed a stronger connection to Judaism and greater understanding of how the Maryland Jewish story fits into the larger American Jewish experience at NMAJH. I hope that others can have an equally rewarding experience at this museum.
A blog post by Graham Humphrey, Visitor Services Coordinator. To read more posts by Graham click HERE.
Posted on January 27th, 2014 by Rachel
What do political scientist Norm Ornstein, the Pew Study and the American Civil War have to do with one another? I can’t speak to their relationships in the real world, but I would like to share some thoughts about they have started to link up in my mind.
Ornstein, author of It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional System Collided With the New Politics of Extremism, has been speaking recently about a phenomenon he calls “tribalism”. There are many aspects to his analysis, but at its core he defines the situation as one where people start to care more about who is making the argument than about the content of the argument. Politicians switch positions on issues depending on which party or which leader has made the proposal. Tribalism makes compromise nearly impossible – because while it’s conceivable to find middle ground on an issue there is no middle ground on identity.
It has occurred to me that this type of tribalism is a feature of the modern world that is by no means restricted to Washington. The Pew Study is the most recent effort to slice and dice the American Jewish community and discern its subgroups. I am aware of the controversy over the methodologies of the studies but I don’t think anyone would deny that differences within our community sometimes impede our collective well-being. There are real disagreements about matters of policy, but I am often struck by the fact that the fiercest struggles are matters of identity. At a recent forum it happened that a panel was introduced only by their names. About midway through the policy discussion, a clearly distressed audience member raised her hand and said “we all have prejudices, tell us something about who you are so we will know your prejudices.” The single item I found most striking in the Pew Study was that when the questions weren’t about labels or rituals, but instead about values – there was a surprising level of commonality across all groups. I manage a museum, so I have a vested interest in the preservation of the inanimate objects we imbue with meaning (what flags we fly, how we dress, what we use to worship), but I find myself wondering whether we sometimes put so much value in the distinctive aspects of our material culture that we lose sight of the human bonds that tie us all together.
And this takes me to the topic of the Civil War. When Ornstein was recently asked if this is the worst state that Congress has ever been in, he conceded that it was worse in the years immediately prior to the Civil War…but added, who wants to use that as a standard of comparison? Our current exhibit points out that the war not only divided the Union but exacerbated divisions within the Jewish community. As “who” became more important than “what”, factions became irreconcilable. In many cases people stopped talking to their neighbors and shut themselves off from alternate points of view. In the echo chambers that emerged, progressively more radical solutions started to seem normal. Families and congregations were split forever.
I think that identity is a basic human need, and that museums like JMM perform a public service by expanding understanding of elements of both our common identity and of the distinctive sub-segments of the Jewish experience. However, I hope we always keep in mind that identity should not be a wall but a window, something that draws us into new worlds and helps us reexamine our own assumptions.
A blog post by executive director Marvin Pinkert. To read more posts by Marvin, click HERE.