Q&A With Anita Kassof
Name / Title: Anita Kassof, Executive Director at the Baltimore Museum of Industry
First job: My first museum job was at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. when a lot of the holocaust survivors were first confronting their past after coming to this country. I felt extremely privileged to be dealing with that history. Working there inspired me to continue a career in museums.
Favorite exhibit at BMI: The cannery exhibit. The BMI building is actually the last remaining oyster cannery in this part of Baltimore and the exhibit not only tells the story of that industry, but also tells the story of the people who worked in that industry.
You took the helm at Baltimore Museum of Industry almost one year ago – how’s the first year been?
Anita: It’s been a whirlwind, but a good one. First of all, I feel very fortunate that I inherited a strong institution and the credit really goes to the staff. We have an incredibly strong team, particularly considering we are a relatively small nonprofit and run pretty lean. Right now, we’re at a very healthy place: we’re well regarded in the community, we’re well attended and we have a lot of visibility as both a museum and event venue. Of course, we’re always looking to the future to improve. We have untapped opportunity where we can make things better both internally and externally – like exploring more strategic partnerships, becoming more engaged with the community and making it known that we are open to collaborations. I’m excited to develop those relationships more and open new doors for the BMI.
You’ve worked in museums for the better part of your career – what separates BMI from others?
Anita: The BMI has a really vibrant and flexible mission. I think that the story of “industry” is so central to Baltimore’s identity that we’re positioned in a way that many other museums aren’t to tell the city’s history. There are so many avenues that we can explore that relate to industry, offering us tremendous agility. Whether it’s talking about video games or deindustrialization or the lineotype machine – they all fit under the umbrella of our mission. It allows us to bring new experiences to the museum.
If there’s one exhibit that stands out at BMI among all others, which would you pinpoint as a must-see?
Anita: I would say the Video Game Wizards exhibit is an absolute standout. Maryland is actually a hub for video game development, so we took this industry that is thriving in our economy and turned it into an interactive exhibit that kids love. The exhibit allows visitors to learn about the industry from actual game developers, learn about a career in video games and even make their own video game to play at home. The exhibit is so popular it’s actually increased our walk-in rate by 70%.
Baltimore was once an industrial powerhouse, but over the past few decades, has lost that identity. Do you foresee an industrial resurgence in “the working man’s town”?
Anita: It’s true that Baltimore has lost its manufacturing base. We lost 90,000 manufacturing jobs between 1970 and 1998 and naturally, that had a significant impact on the city and on the men and women who made their living in manufacturing. But depending on how you define industry – and I think industry can be defined fairly broadly – there are industry sectors in Baltimore that are thriving: education, healthcare and financial services for example.
With that said, there are still really exciting things going on in small manufacturing and the maker movement and my goal is for the BMI to tap into the energy of that movement.
Before joining the BMI, you served as the Deputy Director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City. What made you decide to move back to Baltimore?
Anita: I absolutely loved working at the Museum of Jewish Heritage and it was tremendously exciting to be in New York. But my husband and I realized very quickly how tied we were to Baltimore. In the quest for adventure, we underestimated how much it means to be in a city where you raised your kids and where you own your house and where you spent most of your career. I came back to discover that I’m really much more comfortable navigating in a smaller pond. I’m just thrilled to be back.
What is the message you want visitors to walk away with after visiting the museum?
Anita: A new or renewed appreciation for Baltimore’s industrial past and a respect for the men and women who helped fuel it. I’d also like them to be inspired about how “industry” has changed and what’s going on in industry today. When people come here, they’re not only honoring our industrial past – which is something we do well and will continue to do – but they’re also learning about those tougher issues, you know, what happens when a manufacturing base is lost and what deindustrialization means for men and women who are industrial workers, as well as what’s going on in industry today.
You seem to be a big proponent of incorporating interactive elements into the exhibits at the BMI. What are the benefits of this?
Anita: I think that visitors’ expectations of museums have changed in the last generation, especially with millennials. Visitors expect to express opinions and for consumption to be more social than it might have been in the past. We certainly are cognizant of that and are doing more things to encourage interaction. For example, we launched a pop-up exhibition shortly after the death of Freddie Gray. Inspired by a tweet from Oriole’s executive vice president, John Angelos, the exhibition explores the link between Baltimore’s loss of manufacturing jobs and the recent protests. Because this is such a big issue central to Baltimore, we wanted to provide a platform for the community to share their voice on what deindustrialization has meant for the city, so we have notes that visitors can leave comments on and include in the exhibit.
Also, we’re currently running a Baltimore Then & Now photo contest in partnership with Baltimore Gas and Electric to generate content for the exhibit we’re launching next year for BGE’s 200th anniversary. We have about 80,000 photos of Baltimore that BGE took throughout the 20th century, giving us glimpses into what this city looked like over the years. We’re crowdsourcing the exhibit and encouraging people to take pictures at the exact sites of the BGE photos. The winning photographs will be displayed then / now style in the February 2016 exhibit. The photo contest is currently live, so please enter!
What new exhibits can we look forward to at the BMI?
Anita: In 2017, we’re excited to launch an exhibition by local award-winning metal sculptor and machine builder, Christopher Bathgate. His artwork takes inspiration from mechanical processes of machine building and manufacturing. It’s a little bit of a departure for us to do an art exhibition, but we think given his inspirations and his methods, it’ll be very successful and it’ll be the right fit for us. Plus his artwork is absolutely beautiful.
BMI is more than a museum — hosting “Neighborhood Nights,” corporate celebrations, farmers markets and food truck gatherings. What is the advantage of hosting these types of events?
Anita: Exposure. I think that a museum can wear many hats – I don’t think it’s just things on a wall or things in display cases. We are such an important neighborhood amenity here, especially with all the development going on in Locust Point. I think we’re in a terrific position to go beyond the walls of the museum and offer experiences to the community that are outside of the typical museum visit.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Anita: I’m excited for the new projects and exhibits we’ll be bringing to the museum – so come visit! We just launched our “Weekend Workers” program where we’ll be introducing more family-friendly activities, like oyster shucking, electrical circuit making and even DIY hypnotizers. There’s always something in the works at the BMI.