Posted on February 10th, 2014 by Rachel
You can download a sheet of these awesome Mendes Cohen themed valentines HERE: Mendes Valentines.
Posted on January 17th, 2014 by Rachel
People are often surprised to hear how long it takes from the time an exhibition idea is conceived to its installation in one of our galleries. In fact, exhibition development is a long and multi-tiered process and involves the contributions of a team of individuals each of whom brings diverse skills and areas of expertise to the table that are necessary to create a rich and engaging high quality exhibition. In addition, we often find that the final exhibition is vastly different from what we had anticipated when the project was conceived as we follow the trail of research that often reveals new exciting discoveries suggesting a different interpretive tact than what was originally proposed.
Curator Karen Falk
At the JMM, we are fortunate to have a skilled exhibition curator, Karen Falk, who takes the lead on developing original exhibitions (including Chosen Food and the upcoming Jews, Health, and Healing project). The curator plays a pivotal role in shaping the exhibit’s big ideas and concepts; conducting research; selecting photographs, documents, and objects to include and determining where in the exhibit they best fit; writing the exhibit script and label text; and supervising the exhibition design and fabrication process. While the curator guides the process, exhibition development at the JMM is very much a collaborative effort. Other members of the team from within the JMM include our collections manager (Jobi Zink), who oversees loan processing, artifact conservation, and exhibit installation; our education director (Ilene Dackman-Alon) who ensures that exhibit content and interactives meet the needs of school audiences; CFO (Susan Press) who develops project budgets; and our executive director (Marvin Pinkert) and assistant director (Deborah Cardin) who participate in various stages of exhibition development. Additional JMM staff members play significant roles in other important aspects such as program development, marketing, gallery preparation, and fundraising. The JMM also relies on the talents of consultants to assist in the critical areas of exhibition design and fabrication. The exhibition designer is typically brought in early in the process and works closely with the project team to refine concepts and to create floor plans, interactive activities, and a graphic identity for the exhibit. Once the design stage is complete, exhibition fabricators work to build exhibit elements including printing panels, labels, and background images. This entire process from start to finish takes a minimum of two years.
Mark your calendars!
Because we do not have enough resources in house to develop original exhibits to install something new in the Feldman Gallery once, much less twice a year, we also rent exhibitions for display that originate at other museums. While traveling exhibits do not involve as much work, JMM staff still must oversee details large and small from negotiating contract agreements to taking care of shipping and insurance arrangements to modifying the exhibit’s design to fit the specifications of our galleries. Some exhibits, such as the upcoming Project Mah Jongg which comes to us from the Museum of Jewish Heritage, are installed more or less as they were originally designed with just a few modifications. For others, we make larger adjustments to the exhibit’s design so that we can add materials that reflect the Maryland experience. For example, for our current exhibit, Passages through the Fire: Jews and the Civil War, we conducted extensive research into the history of Maryland Jewish involvement in the war and added many new stories and artifacts. The resulting installation in our gallery is quite different from how it originally appeared at Yeshiva University Museum.
Mendes Cohen, 1818
We often get asked how we come up with ideas for exhibits and there really is no simple answer to this question. Topics come to us from many sources including staff, volunteers, board members, visitors, and interns. Sometimes an exhibit project is proposed for a specific reason such as a desire to showcase a particular collection or to tie in with larger communal events. One current exhibit under development, The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen, was initially proposed by executive director Marvin Pinkert as we were looking to fill in what we thought was going to be a small gap between two other exhibits. The original rationale for this project was an interest in participating in Baltimore’s anniversary celebration of the War of 1812 through the creation of a small scale exhibit focusing on Mendes Cohen, a member of one of Jewish Baltimore’s early prominent families who was a traveler, adventurer, and collector. Our initial proposal was to focus on his wartime involvement at Fort McHenry. We also were eager to display some of the artifacts that we have on display belonging to Mendes including a portable writing desk and jacket.
A puzzle preview
As we began exhibit research, we uncovered many new discoveries about Mendes and his family and what began as plans for a small temporary exhibit have turned into a full-fledged interactive exhibit taking the form of a maze (designed by Minotaur Mazes) that will be on view for nine months. The maze format serves as an apt metaphor for Mendes’ life which took many twists and turns. At certain points in the maze, visitors will have to make choices that simulate decisions that Mendes made. Thanks to the efforts of researcher Joseph Abel, who has been working with us on the project for the past few months, we have been able to immerse ourselves in his life by exploring a treasure trove of letters written by Mendes housed at the Maryland Historical Society that provide meticulous accounts of his journeys to Europe and the Middle East (Mendes was the first American citizen to receive official permission from the Ottomans to visit Palestine). Through Joseph’s analysis of these letters as well as of documents housed in other archives, he has uncovered some wonderful new insight into the difficulties of traveling in the 1830s as well as new information about the places he visited during his journey.
The resulting research has led us in a new path. Our latest concept for the exhibit focuses on the search for identity and tasks visitors to explore the many different ways that Mendes defined himself through his family relationships, religious observance, professional obligations, and search for adventure through travels. At a recent meeting with our exhibit designer, Kelly Fernandi of Minotaur Mazes, we were delighted by how he captured the essence of this concept through interpretive panel designs and interactive activities. We all left the meeting feeling enthusiastic about our plans for The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen and are continuing to research new sources and explore new avenues for bringing Mendes’ incredible story to life. We look forward to keeping you apprised of our progress and hope you will join us to discover Mendes for yourself when we open the exhibit in September 2014.
Posted on December 23rd, 2013 by Rachel
Last week Joseph Abell, our professional researcher, shared some of his adventures in pursuit of the life of Mendes Cohen, defender of Fort McHenry. But even amateur detectives, like me, can get in on the hunt:
It was a cold morning early this November. I woke up and realized that this would probably be the last day I could really see fall foliage in all its glory. After making my way through morning chores, I pointed the car towards Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia…my absolutely favorite autumn view.
The autumn view
On the shuttle bus from the parking lot to the town, an image flashed through my mind – a rather odd connection. Just before I had left work for the weekend, I had been perusing a genealogical chart of the Cohen family. Israel Cohen, the founder of the clan arrived in America on September 21, 1787 (four days after the completion of the US Constitution). In addition to Mendes, Israel had eight sons and one daughter. In the middle of the chart I had glimpsed the childhood deaths of two of Mendes’ great-nephews: Solomon Etting Cohen and Benjamin Denny Cohen. It now occurred to me that the place of death was listed as “Harper’s Ferry”. I decided that as long as I was here I would go the ranger station and ask if anyone had knowledge of a Cohen family living in Harper’s Ferry in the 1840’s.
Now this was my tenth or eleventh trip to Harper’s Ferry so I knew that the ranger station was across the street from the 1850s clothing store. I had never paid much attention to the name on the store, “Phillip Frankel”, but in light of my current search it took on a new meaning. The Cohens it was clear weren’t the only Jews in historic Harper’s Ferry. The ranger had no information on the Cohens but directed me over to the bookstore where he said there was a guide to regional cemeteries. I opened up the guide – I found the Cohen Boys were buried at Harper’s Cemetery up the hill. But another listing sparked my curiosity…there was a Ella Harper Cohen buried at the cemetery in nearby Shepherdstown, WV. The date of death was 1920. Was it just a coincidence that there was another Cohen in the neighborhood? After all, it’s a pretty common name.
Now I was hooked. The clerk in the bookstore said that if I wanted to find out more about the Cohens, I might try the Jefferson County (WV) Historical Society. The organization was housed in the library in Charles Town just 15 minutes up the road. It was past 3:30 – I might just make it before the library closed. What started as a casual search that afternoon became an obsession. I caught the shuttle bus back to my car and made a bee line for Charles Town. I ran towards the library and went through the open door. But I was too late, the library had already shut its doors – but off to the side I noticed an opening to something called the Jefferson County Museum and one docent was still inside preparing for end of day. I told him my whole story. He searched a database and found obituaries for the kids and for Ella Harper Cohen.
It appeared that the children had died within weeks of each other. He speculated that this was probably the result of an epidemic that swept the town in 1847. Diseases like Typhus were still a problem in this part of the country then.
Ella Harper Cohen, known as Sally, was the wife of Benjamin I. Cohen, a first cousin to the boys. She had her body shipped back from Portland, OR to West Virginia when she died. With a little more on-line research at the National Archives, I was able to determine that Sally was a direct descendant of Richard Harper – the man who created the ferry. She converted to Judaism in 1876 and married Benjamin in Portland in 1881 in a ceremony officiated by a rabbi. Their marriage lasted 34 years until Benjamin passed away. This new data raised so many more questions than it answered. How did this Jewish boy from Baltimore meet and fall in love with this girl with roots in Harper’s Ferry? What pushed/pulled them out to Portland, OR? Why did she send her body back to a home she hadn’t lived near in at least forty years?
That’s the great thing about exploring history, every mystery you unwrap leads to another one to be revealed.
We have not yet found any living descendants of Israel Cohen and his ten children. The last name on the genealogical chart passes away in the 1990s. If any reader of this blog post has a clue to a descendant we might have missed I invite you to contact us.
A blog post by JMM Executive Director Marvin Pinkert. To read more post by Marvin, click here.