The A-mazing Mendes Cohen

Jewish Museum of Maryland, Maryland Historical Society, and Minotaur Mazes
Baltimore, MD

The exhibit concept for The A-mazing Mendes Cohen was to illuminate nineteenth-century history and the formation of Jewish-American identity through the life of an obscure but colorful figure whose adventures, beginning with the War of 1812, connected him to an incredible array of places and events. A soldier, a banker, a world traveler, a botanist, an Egyptologist, a politician, and a philanthropist, Mendes Cohen was “part Forrest Gump, part Indiana Jones, and 100% real.”

Working in partnership with the Maryland Historical Society, the Jewish Museum of Maryland and Minotaur Mazes were able to let visitors experience some of the most interesting episodes in this richly complex life through a truly one-of-a-kind exhibit. To create a lively and appealing environment for discovery as well as compensate for a lack of available contemporary images, the Museum framed the whole experience as a maze and embedded not only artifacts and documents, but also puzzles and interactives into that environment. This transformed every twist and turn in Cohen’s life into a potential surprise and made the exhibit accessible to school and family audiences as well as adult visitors.

The Mendes Cohen exhibit tells a story that is simultaneously particular and universal. The maze draws explicit connections between the story of one individual and one ethnic group and the wider world in which they lived, and puts the local interests of boomtown Baltimore in a global context. The timeline at the center of the exhibit draws together figures as diverse as Napoleon, Nat Turner, Benjamin Disraeli, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, while visitors from all backgrounds are invited to see themselves in Cohen’s world.

The exhibit has also been a launch pad for the discussion of both historic and contemporary issues in Jewish and American life. Research from this project will be incorporated into a new core exhibit in 2018 to address, for the first time at the museum, the origins of Maryland’s Jewish community.