By Marvin Pinkert
Director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland
Earlier this month, many of you saw the article by Jennifer Moses celebrating her roots journey back to Lombard Street and the Jewish Museum of Maryland. I know that many of you saw it, because when I opened my web version of the New York Times on Monday morning, this article was listed as the most popular/most shared piece in the entire travel section. It stands to reason that people were emailing it to their Baltimore friends and relatives.
Like Jennifer, I get a thrill from uncovering the shards of the past that give me a glimpse into the world of my ancestors. One of the great joys of being Director of JMM is that I get to spend some of my time looking backwards, joining in the simchahs and tzimmeses of centuries past – only to discover how much I have in common with those who struggled to build the community we have today.
But my job is also to look forward, to work with my friends on the JMM Board and my colleagues on the staff to imagine a future for the museum. Last September we drafted a “futures” report, and this seemed like a good time to share our progress towards our vision. The central premise of the report was that the most vital mission of the Jewish Museum of Maryland is making connections: connecting the Jewish community to its common heritage, connecting the non-Jewish community to the Jewish experience and connecting the past to our present and future.
To accomplish this mission we decided to focus our energies on what we nicknamed “the 4 D’s.”
• Destination – a commitment to building an audience at 15 Lloyd Street
• Documentation – a commitment to preserving and sharing the intellectual and material culture of the Maryland Jewish community
• Discourse – a commitment to using history as a springboard to dialogue on current issues and events
• Discovery – a commitment to engaging people of all ages to think about our Jewish past as an inspiring and surprising world to be explored In the past six months we have made significant strides towards each piece of this vision.
In October we extended our hours and expanded our tours, critical steps in growing our audience. We experimented with advertising on radio and TV and we put some effort into making ourselves known outside of Baltimore. In January we opened “Zap! Pow! Bam!,” a family-friendly exhibit about the connections between American Jews and the classic superheroes. The exhibit received excellent coverage in the Baltimore Jewish Times, The Baltimore Sun and The Washington Post. The net result: a 38 percent year-to-year increase in attendance for the last 12 weeks, a down payment on our drive to become a destination.
We’ve also been picking up the pace of research on our future exhibit projects: Passages through the Fire: Jews and the American Civil War (October 2013 through February 2014); The Mah Jongg Project (April 2014 through July 2014); The A-maze-ing Mendes Cohen (September 2014 through January 2015) and Jews, Health and Healing (opening February 2015). We’ve been investigating salacious stories about Confederate spies, tracking down descendants of some of Baltimore’s oldest Jewish families and conducting oral interviews with medical practitioners. The explorations of our collections and archives that precedes each exhibit, adds to our store of documentation.
At the same time we’ve had an exceptionally successful program season. Many of our programs have a direct tie to our current exhibits (for example, Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, voted the “hippest rabbi in New York,” came to speak on his book “Up, Up and Oy Vey”… and you won’t want to miss our June 16 program – “Clark Kent’s Bar Mitvah Party.”
But a portion of our programming is dedicated to the intersection of history and contemporary life. Our April 14 Herbert H. and Irma B. Risch Program, a concert/lecture on immigrant communities that featured HIAS CEO Mark Hetfield, is a great example of this type of discourse. But the progress I’m most excited about are the steps that we’re taking towards becoming a place of discovery.
Last Sunday I gave a tour to three people – two were grandchildren of the last President of Shomrei Mishmeres, Tobias Miller, and they were delighted to discover their father and uncle in an exhibit photo. The third was a college student who told me that she was asked to visit a historic site as part of an experiential learning project. She revealed that she had never been in a synagogue and the whole tour was an amazing discovery. We are actively learning from our visitors and beginning to forge concepts on how to infuse each visit with a living history component.
If you are interested in helping us shape this piece of our vision I invite you to join us on Monday morning May 20 at 11 am. We will be holding an “On-site Insight” program – “Making the Old New Again” – as part of our contribution as hosts of the national museum convention (AAM). The program is open to the general public and as an extra bonus it’s our two-for-one admission day during Museum Week. Don’t let our friends from New York have all the fun, come visit yourself.
To learn more, go to jewishmuseum.org.