In the latest in an occasional Cross Ties series featuring the reflections of new leaders of humanities organizations, Marvin Pinkert, executive director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland, describes the museum’s new strategic goals and places them within the context of current thinking in the museum field about creating memorable experiences.
By Marvin Pinkert
It’s not uncommon for me to meet with a friend of the Jewish Museum of Maryland who expresses concern about the high cost of creating exhibits. This usually triggers my recitation of the “John Falk story.”
John, a preeminent researcher and scholar of museum learning, once told me about his experience speaking to school teachers in Iowa. One of the teachers interrupted his lecture to ask, “What could you possibly mean by ‘museum education’? Students go to a museum for a couple of hours – what kind of education is that?” John responded by asking a question: “How many of you have been on a field trip when you were in school?” Most raised their hands. “So tell me something about it,” said John. People spoke of their trips to Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, visiting the coal mine and the submarine there, or of the dinosaurs at the Field Museum. John then asked, “What happened next?” Blank stares. “Next, that next day of school? That week? That month?” No one could remember. John’s point was that museums are remembered experiences and that the power of authenticity, social context, and personal connectivity allows museums to play a role in lifelong learning that can’t be measured simply by the duration of a visit.
I use the Falk story to make the point that while it would indeed be much cheaper to simply send digital assets to everyone interested in Maryland Jewish history, it wouldn’t be nearly so effective. We spend money to create memorable experiences because they inspire curiosity and motivate discovery – without that inspiration and motivation, no amount of data transfer will have any real learning impact.
So when I arrived at JMM, the real question was, “What types of memorable experiences would we try to create?”
Thankfully, I was not starting from a blank slate. My predecessors had developed a small gem. They started in 1959 by saving America’s third-oldest standing synagogue from a wrecking ball. The Lloyd Street Synagogue was a crumbling structure in what was perceived to be a deteriorating neighborhood. I can only describe their efforts to stabilize the building as an act of faith. At the same time, this founding generation formed the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland and began collecting the artifacts and documents that constitute the community’s legacy. Today, our holdings include more than twenty thousand items ranging from the records of educational institutes to the ephemera of Baltimore department stores, constituting one of the richest collections of everyday life of American Jews in the country. In the 1990s, the historical society changed its name to reflect its focus as a museum. Some of the most talented people in our profession developed a series of innovative exhibit offerings, including two quasi-permanent galleries with immersive exhibits on our neighborhood and our synagogues (a second synagogue from 1876 was added to the campus in the 1980s). The team also developed co-curricular activities that linked the experience at the museum to the formal learning standards of the public schools. Today public school children are our largest constituency.
I like to think that institutions are most successful when they cleave to their own special inheritance. Rather than ask, “What should a science center do?” or “What should a history museum do?” as though all institutions in those broad categories were essentially interchangeable, I have always tried to lead organizations towards their own unique niche. At the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago we pushed to be “the best museum of how things work,” and at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. we endeavored to be “the best museum of records.” At the Jewish Museum of Maryland we’re striving to be “the best museum of American Jewish community.” Other museums tell a more comprehensive story of a national Jewish history, or the tragedy of the Holocaust, or the vibrant world of Jewish fine arts. Our memorable experiences are focused on the creation, division, and reaffirmation of community – the struggle of immigrants caught between assimilation and identity, and the interactions between one ethnic community and its neighbors. Our lens may be local and particular, but the story illuminated through that lens connects to almost every visitor. Some visitors come to us to reconnect with shared roots, but many others come because of curiosity about an unknown culture, only to discover parallels to their own families and heritage.
Following this intuition, I met with my board of directors last summer to lay out a vision for the future of the museum. We agreed upon four priorities for investment in the next few years:
1. To become a destination, growing the audience at our campus on Lloyd Street. At the end of 2012 we started this process by more than doubling our public hours (from sixteen to thirty five); expanding our program of tours; producing our first ads on radio and television; and conducting a series of highly visible programs to generate media coverage, including a culinary showdown called “GefilteFest” and a bar mitzvah party for Clark Kent in conjunction with a traveling exhibit on the Jewish creators of super heroes. During the first seven months of 2013 our attendance is up 42 percent over the prior year.
2. To maintain documentation, by preserving the record of our community. Our Collections Committee has accessioned nearly four thousand items in the past year including the photo morgue of the Baltimore Jewish Times and several artifacts from a synagogue in the small town of Pocomoke City that once served Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Space and budget will constrain our accessions in the years ahead, but we are fully committed to preservation and accessibility for a collection that broadly reflects the experience of Maryland’s Jews.
3. To encourage discourse, by making the connection between past and present. History only seems “old” if you cannot imagine yourself as standing in the shoes of the people in the story. Through public programs, exhibits, and social media we provide audiences a chance to see history from the perspective of its participants. This past year we expanded our immigrant’s trunk program (a living history engagement focusing on Bessie Bluefeld, a Russian immigrant to Baltimore who started the kosher Bluefeld Catering.). We also introduced a Late Night on Lloyd Street program for young professionals, combining historical programming with a consideration of contemporary issues.
4. To promote discovery, by serving as informal educator for audiences of all ages. We select exhibit projects with an eye to connecting familiar topics (e.g. super heroes, Civil War, Mah Jongg) with unexpected stories, opening windows to new possibilities. Our museum educators have honed the craft of turning concepts into experiences and providing opportunities to learn by doing. With school groups we integrate curricular objectives into our activities, while with family groups we make recreational programs into shared educational adventures. For example, for our upcoming Civil War project we are letting kids try their hand at occupations of four 1860s Jewish Americans featured in the exhibition – a photographer, a sutler, a seamstress, and a monument maker.
It seems to me that we are making progress on all four fronts. Still, there is much more to do. The Jewish Museum of Maryland has no plans to become a large museum, but it aspires to be a great museum. Adding my own coda to the “John Falk story,” the value of a museum is not to be found in its size alone, but in the depth of its impact on the people it touches. When I look into the eyes of our visitors, I know that it continues to be worth the investment.
For more information about the Jewish Museum of Maryland, go to http://jewishmuseummd.org/.
Marvin Pinkert is the executive director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore. He previously served as vice president for programs at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago and as the first executive director for the National Archives Experience in Washington, D.C. He has spent the last twenty-four years working in museums and the last fifty-five years thinking about them.
Redefining Our Value, Building a Community of Practice, by Laurie Zierer, Executive Director, Pennsylvania Humanities Council