Making history: Marvin Pinkert

Marvin Pinkert
Marvin Pinkert (Courtesy of the Jewish Museum of Maryland)

A changing of the guard is underway at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, as the current executive director, Marvin Pinkert, is retiring.

A resident of Elkridge in Howard County, Pinkert has held his post as JMM’s third executive director since 2012, after leaving his previous position as the director of the museum of the National Archives, he said. Pinkert took over the JMM executive director position from Avi Decter.

Pinkert explained that his fervor for history began as he grew up in Chicago while attending the Conservative synagogue Congregation Rodfei Zedek. Pinkert reminisced about how, when performing with his congregation’s choir, he was told that his voice was “miserable,” and that he “should not participate anymore.” This was the same year that his younger cousin, Mandy Patinkin, was made the star of the choir, a point Pinkert did not recall with much fondness. Patinkin later became known for his work in “The Princess Bride” and “Homeland.”

As a result, Pinkert chose to seek a new outlet for his talents, later winning a “history bee” at his Hebrew school, sparking his passion for Jewish history. Pinkert recalled being “crazy about museums as a child,” visiting Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry so often that he became his family’s unofficial guide by the time he was 8 years old.

Some of the hats Pinkert wore before his appointment at JMM included working as a foreign service officer in Seoul, South Korea, as a micro computer salesman in Hawaii, in alumni relations at his alma mater Brandeis University, as a book marketer in Chicago and as assistant to the president of Long Island University.

In time, Pinkert learned that there was a new president at the Museum of Science and Industry. Rushing to a pay phone, Pinkert managed to reach the new president and talked his way into a new role as a strategic planner at the museum, a position that had not existed prior to Pinkert’s call. In time, he moved on to roles at the museum of the National Archives, and then, of course, to the executive director position at JMM.

Some of the more significant changes made to JMM during Pinkert’s tenure include extending its availability to the public from 15 hours a week, which he called “the next best thing to being closed,” to 35. Pinkert also introduced the museum’s GefilteFest event, he said, which amounted to a gefilte fish preparation contest in JMM’s parking lot.

Lastly, Pinkert noted how the 2008 recession left the museum with a number of financial challenges that were still unresolved by the start of his tenure. Working to streamline the museum’s operations in a way that would shore up its finances, Pinkert was pleased to report that “with the exception of our COVID year, we’ve come in with a balanced budget every year that I’ve been there.”

When asked about his proudest accomplishments at JMM, Pinkert spoke about how he convinced the nonprofit Visit Baltimore, which focuses on marketing Baltimore as a cultural destination, to include the neighborhood of Jonestown, where JMM is located, on the maps it hands out to visitors. In essence, Pinkert explained, they “literally put Jonestown on the map.”

Pinkert also spoke about how he and his team had created “strong and memorable exhibits,” winning the 2015 Award of Merit from the American Association for State and Local History for their exhibit “The A-mazing Mendes Cohen.” He also mentioned the 2018 exhibit “Inescapable: The Life and Legacy of Harry Houdini,” which, while only having a year to put together, “ended up being the most popular exhibit in the history of the museum,” he said.

Pinkert also expressed that this year’s “Jews in Space” exhibit felt very meaningful to him, and even more so 2019’s “Scrap Yard: Innovators of Recycling,” saying that it “told the story of families that were like my family, and it told the story of my family,” noting how he would spend his childhood summers working in a scrap yard.

Pinkert said it was in January of 2020 that he made the formal announcement that he planned to retire by the end of the year. On why he decided to retire, Pinkert said, “it was time to retire.”

Filling Pinkert’s shoes will be Bryan Solomon “Sol” Davis, who is currently the director of the Jewish History Museum and Holocaust History Center in Tucson, Ariz.

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