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July 2014

Tin, Tzedakah and Seeing the Ordinary

L'Chaim-Kiddush-Cup-InvitationalIn 1997 I was invited for the first time to participate in the invitational show hosted by the Contemporary Jewish Museum. I'd seen (and was inspired by) a few of the previous shows where they invited contemporary artists and makers to create pieces of Judaica.  The results were beyond expectations or gift store tchotche.

This was a very exciting opportunity -- but what to make? The theme was the kiddush cup.

While considered the theme, I wanted to use recycled tin cans, something that I had been working with for about 7 years at the time. Racking my brain, vague memories of the tin Tzedakah boxes from my childhood came to mind. I hadn't seen one for a long time..... no one collects charity a penny or nickel at a time.

I asked my father, "Do you have a tin Tzedakah box in a closet somewhere?"  Or do you know anyone that might have a Tzedakah box stuck in a corner somewhere?"Tzedakah-boxes-Jewish-National-Fund-box

Within 10 days he sent me 14 boxes just like the one above. This tzedakah box design for the Jewish National Fund design dates from the mid-20th century.

From those first tin boxes I made this Kiddush cup.

Kiddish cup constructed from Pushke Boxes for Jewish National Fund  by Harriete Estel Berman

Making Judaica from recycled tin seemed heretical.

What would people think? Making a ceremonial object for a museum exhibition from unwanted, ordinary "pushke boxes" seemed irreverent. Working with recycled materials was very rare at the time, even embarrassing. Recycled and repurposed materials had not yet become the eco-trend of the 21st century.

The big surprise for me was how well received this new direction was at so many levels.

A lesson for everyone to try unexpected solutions for their art or craft. This risk started a whole new series of work that continues to this day.  

Since then, many people have given me their tin tzedakah boxes. Instead of throwing them away, they give their boxes a new life. Tzedakah boxes 015

The ordinary tin boxes carry memories of ritual, and observation from another generation. It is odd that the boxes have no value, but they are too valuable to be thrown away. That was why it was so exciting to see "Tzedakah Boxes at The Magnes Collection."

Tzedakah boxes historical Jewish National Fund Box for charity 

Reusing materials can carry information
 beyond the humble materials. The history of the object or the materials carries meaning. The materials contribute to the new purpose.

Berman Scents of peaceSpice Box Besamin from recycled tin cans

Since 1997, humble tin "pushke boxes" have been used in many peices.

Tzedakah 9 envelopes made from tzedakah Pushke boxes and recycled tin cans.

This photos shows "Tzedakah" 50 envelopes from recycled tin cans. 


So are there ordinary objects or materials that could bring new meaning to your work?

"Screaming Frog" Free Unlimited Analysis of Your Website SEO

Screaming-frog-logoI've recently discovered an easy to use and free SEO analysis tool for your website -- Screaming Frog. The free version works on up to 500 pages which I'm  betting will work for most every artist and maker's site.

The best part is you can use it over and over. So you can fix a few problems, then you can analyze your website again. It catches all of the most important issues right away for website SEO (Search Engine Optimization) such as duplicate content.

Duplicate content may include URLs, titles, and descriptions.   Considering how many mistakes I've found on my website .... yikes!  

You can download Screaming Frog here with options for Mac and PC users. Their analysis shows you all your pages and the most important information you need to know. If your website SEO isn't working, your website isn't working for you.

Website SEO performance is an issue that extends beyond just an evaluation. If your website has problems, search engines will reduce your page rank in search results. 

ASK Harriete has more specifc explanations for the major issues with SEO analysis with this previous post.

10 Tips For Artists and Makers to Attract Web Traffic to Your Site.

Tzedakah Boxes at The Magnes Collection


During my tour behind the scenes in the storage area of The Magnes, Curator, Dr. Francesco Sagnolo, opened a drawer containing Tzedakah boxes.  

Drawers in the storage area of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and CultureHow did he know that these small tin boxes would be my favorite objects of the day.

drawer of Tzedakah boxes at The Magnes CollectionThese tzedakah boxes 
are printed tin used to collect coins for charity. 

Once even a humble tin Tzedakah box enters a museum collection, it is documented and stored with reverence.  


Tzedakah boxes are often called "puske" boxes in Yiddish. The boxes have little value as an object, or materials, yet are very hard to find. They document a time and place when a penny, nickel or dime was collected for charity. Coins would add up to significant donations in another time.

While these are not religious objects, they often have sentimental value or even serve historical documentation.(Starting with the box on the far left in the above photo...)


This Tzedakah box from The Magnus Collection (above) shows an early map of what is now called Israel, Gaza, and Lebanon. This is an area we hear about every night in the news. The box carries historical perspective from about the 1920's before borders were designated by international negotiations and modern maps. It portrays a concept of Israel before it even existed as a nation. 

Sometimes Tzedakah boxes were for a specific organization -- kind of like a special savings account set up for donations.

This green tzedakah box (shown below) with Hebrew lettering says:
 "Tzedakah (alms) in memory of Rabbi Meir Baal Hachayim, Hungarian "kollel" [religious community study room], [...] Jerusalem". (Translation from Dr. Daniel Viragh)

The Tzedakah box
(shown below) is from Vienna, Austria. 


The coin slot opening at the top was equipped internally with linked chains to make more noise when the coins were placed in the box.  


Usually Tzedakah boxes were humble materials such as painted tin, brass or copper.  The cylindrical box (left- created 1801 - 1900) has a clasp and loop for a small lock. Even more than a century ago, it was necessary to keep honest people honest.

Humble objects and modest materials can communicate values and meaning beyond the intrinsic materials themselves. 

I had completely forgotten about the little blue tin Tzedakah box of my childhood until 1997 when vague memories of tin boxes surfaced for a new direction in my work... this is THE next post. 

PS. I will be lecturing at The Magnes Collection on Wednesday, October 29th for a short lunch time lecture and discusion. Please consider coming. Admission is free. 

Museums Save Ordinary as Extraordinary

Museums often collect the once ordinary that has become extraordinary and revealing. To imagine that something that would have been casually used everyday, never considered special or unique, perhaps even considered temporary or disposable, has survived 50 or 100 years or more is amazing. 

On this table in the background (at the top of the photo) the staff at The Magnes were laying out items for an upcoming exhibition.


These plates (in the photo below) connect to food. The plate above (left) says 'milk' and the plate below center says 'meat.' 


Labeled plates may seem odd to us since most people use different china patterns to remember which is the milk or meat plates to keep Kosher. The staff explained that these plates were from a restaurant where they didn't want to take a chance that the plates would be mixed up. But even more extraordinary, they actually had their original plastic wrap so that everyone would know they were clean.

Imagine plastic wrap lasting decades!

The Magnes even had old spice tins ready for the next exhibition.  While not valuable in the terms of a purchase price, a tin from Horowitz Margareten (a Kosher spice company) is almost impossible to find. 

I love spice tins....and have used them to construct some of my work.

Below is another utilitarian and pedestrian object from the past. Typewriter-Underwood-Manual-Hebrew-Yiddush

High tech in1923, but out dated since, this Underwood typewriter with lettering for Yiddush and Hebrew somehow avoided reclamation for scrap metal for 90 years. 


The typewriter is creatively used to display information in the exhibition at The Magnes Collection. 


In the above photo, Dr. Daniel Viragh, Post Doctoral Fellow at The Magnes, describes how he and his students searched the archives of The Magnes Collection at the Bancroft Library.

Hundreds of hours went into research of personal papers, letters and newspaper clippings from the 1940's and 50's. Ephemera that somehow survived 60+ years and now serves to offer insight in research. I wonder what will happen in the future when personal papers no longer exist, and everything is on the "old" computers hard drive, lost forever.

This is why museums like The Magnes Collection of Art and Culture provide such a valuable role.

Saving and collecting objects representing former times can become extraordinary if they have survived to share their history.  That is what The Magnes Collection is all about.

Your work could become part of a museum collection, especially if it represents something in our contemporary culture or captures a theme of our times. 

P.S. Tomorrow I will share some ordinary objects that had a significant impact on my work.

The Magnes Museum Collection Cradles Extraordinary Objects and Textiles

Aryn-Shelander-Harriete-Estel-Berman-at-the-MagnesRecently, I had the opportunity to see behind the scenes at the Magnes Collection with my daughter. 

The staff allowed us to see drawer after drawer of this extensive Judaica Collection.  One practice that I observed right away was that all objects, whether ordinary to extraordinary, are stored and cared for with superb diligence. 


In the above photo, a selection of shofars are housed together in one drawer. A shofar is a ram's horn blown to make a noise similar to a trumpet. It takes a great deal of experience and practice to make a sound. Consider it an ancient horn of the Maccabee's and tribal cultures.

I also noticed that the registrar always wears gloves before touching anything.

Fingerprints are terrible for all materials. Be sure to include gloves in your shipping boxes to prevent fingerprints just in case you are sending your work to an exhibition location lacking museum standards.


The photo above shows a painted wooden shofar box. This would be a very rare object as I think most shofars would have been carried in a pocket anticipating the occasion for its use at the High Holidays.


In these drawers every object has it's own niche so it can't move when the drawers are opened and closed.


Inventory numbers identify the object within the extensive documentation to establish provenance and preserve value.


This drawer shows a number of different Ester scrolls. These small fragile objects are stored rolled. "Since the Talmudic period, it has been customary to write the Book of Esther on parchment in the form of a scroll, and the rules governing its production and writing are basically the same as those for a traditional Torah scroll."  Click on the previous link if you are interested in more information and images of Ester Scrolls from the Magnes Collection.  


The registrar, Julie Franklin, decided what to show us next.  I am not sure how she decided this next revelation. Each drawer holds a historical textile.


Above we are looking at a well preserved textile in a drawer. Look at the arrangement of the embroidered Hebrew letters.

In the next photo I have turned the photo around for easier viewing to highlight two items. 


The characters with the little dashes above signify the year. The year 2014 correlates to the Jewish calendar year of 5774, so this takes some figuring to date the textile.

The other highlight is to notice how the letters get all squeezed together as they progress to the left (Hebrew reads right to left).  It seems that the embroidering craftsperson was not particularly good at planning.  After 100's of hours, she ran out of room. Imagine that!

Have you considered the investment that goes into protecting each one of these delicate textiles in a separate drawer?   Many of them are hundreds of years old and from different locations around the world.  The museum's investment in storage cabinets, building, space, insurance, registrars, and curators,  probably represents an investment equal or even exceeding the cost of the collected objects if you consider the years of storage.  

The full cost of acquisition of an object goes far beyond the actual purchase price. Think about that next time you wonder why museum's may or may not acquire your work.


Dr. Daniel Viragh was ready to interpret the Hebrew embroidered on the textiles. Many of them had their donors and history elaborately embroidered into the textile.


Reading Hebrew, Yiddush, Hungarian and a few other languages are among Daniel's many skills. In the textile above, the center section was cut from a much older textile, and then framed with newer fabric some 200 years ago. 

The textiles can be removed still flat from the drawer without touching them for further study.


Fragile textiles lay flat out in drawers to protect them from deteriorating in storage. Of course, the hems and edges are the first to fray. Sometimes the materials used to dye the textile eat away at the fabric centuries later. 


Metallic threads in the embroidery also cut the threads.

Fragile silks get brittle and crack which leads to the fabric breaking apart. This is another reason why the textiles are stored flat in drawers. The registrar mentioned that for display, many of these textiles would have to be restored in some way, but stored in a drawer it is available for study and research.  


Protected from insects this Russian wool felt (below) is very durable and would last undamaged for a very long time. I thought it was interesting to see the depiction of Corinthian columns and the folk art styling of the red embroidered flowers and foliage.  I interpret the lighting fixture in the center as an "eternal light" that usually hangs in front of the torah arc. As we viewed the various textiles we were discussing how the Jewish people adopted stylistic influences from the countries that they lived in over the eons.


Moving on....

I found the objects more interesting than the textiles.

P.S. If you want to see an extraordinary textile in a museum at the Jewish Museum Berlin watch the PBS special Part 3 Part 3 Story of the Jews. At about 12:07 minutes a torah arc cover obviously lying flat from its drawer in the museum archive is described as "a masterpiece of synagogue art made from Mendelson's wife own wedding dress."  Talk about reuse! The names of the husband and wife as the donors were parallel to each other in the embroidered dedication of the Torah arc cover.  The curator Michel Friedlander of the Jewish Museum Berlin and lecturer Simon Schama from the program identify the flowers and grass of the Berlin landscape. I recommend watching the entire series of five shows.

Museum Storage of the Collection at The Magnes Museum

The topic of how museum collections are stored has always fascinated me.  What do the museum professionals do with artwork and artifacts during the indefinite periods of time until the next exhibition? How do museum's protect their collections for the long term? 

After organizing the 2014 Professional Development Seminar "Collectors, Collection and YOU" with Brigitte Martin for the SNAG Conference, I was all the more curious for insights into how collectors and museums store their collections.

Fortunately, social networking recently fulfilled this dream as Dr. Daniel Viragh invited my daughter and me to view the collection and behind-the-scenes storage at The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life in Berkeley, CA.   I immediately said "Yes, yes, yes."


Only a year or so ago, The Magnes moved into a newly renovated building in the heart of downton Berkeley.


The Magnes Collection is one of the largest collections of Judaica in the world. In fact, collecting and research is their primary focus. Now, as part of the University of California at Berkeley, they have a new home and renewed capabilities.

The new building houses most of the collection on site. The display areas are fascinating, of course, but to my special delight, the exhibition space includes built-in observation windows for visitors to view into the collection storage space (below). 


Those large beige steel monoliths in the background of the photo above, are enormous movable cabinets on rollers with adjustable shelves and drawers. Because the storage cabinets move, valuable space can be dedicated to storage, and only one walkway is open at a time.


Storage is serious business for a museum. They take this responsibility very seriously. The investment in the collection merits an investment in the storage equipment as well.  For example, all the steel cabinets were on tracks.  In these photos, look just behind the registrar's feet. Notice the track in the floor which enables these cabinets to slide across the floor. They can move to be closely packed yet open up a walkway and access space as needed into more drawers and cabinets.


At the push of a button, the registrar, Julie Franklin, moved an entire cabinet, and opened drawer after drawer for us to see the contents. (More about the items in the cabinets in a future post.)  

Curator, Dr. Francesco Sagnolo, opened a few more cabinets just to offer us a taste of the treasures contained within. 


The variety of mechanisms and devices to store the vast diversity of works in the collection was amazing. 


Of course, the entire room was climate controlled. It felt refreshingly cool and dry.


Inside the drawers were marvelous antiquities and historic objects, all protected for posterity.


Notice that each object is nestled in it's own protective cubby made from foam and cardboard so it can't move around.


Every item has an inventory/acquisition number which corresponds to The Magnes Collection Flickr album of the collection.  In this drawer the cups with multiple handles were for ritual hand washing. The multiple handles allow the user to switch hands.

Note the paper tags in the above photo. The registrar didn't even want the paper to touch the metal to avoid a reaction between the two materials. She would try to prop the paper tag on the edge of the cubby.


Some objects were stored on shelves to make them more accessible for viewing without opening a cabinet or drawer.


Every object on a shelf had a custom made foam core box so it could not move or fall over.

If the curator wanted to look more closely at some object, he could pick up the foam core support and padding without actually touching the object. 


Our special guide, Dr. Daniel Viragh, Post Doctoral Fellow at The Magnes, earned his doctorate in Jewish History from UC Berkeley. He could read the Hebrew for us on 100-200 year old textiles and provided very knowledgeable context for many objects.  

Tomorrow's post and for the next few days ....objects from The Magnes Collection, many more surprises and insights regarding the storage of museum collections.

P.S. -Post-ScriptI will be lecturing at The Magnes Collection on October 29, 2014 at noon.  Please come to this short lecture, and  participate in the intimate conversation.


Related Posts: 

Tzedakah Boxes at The Magnes Collection

The Magnes Museum Collection Cradles Extraordinary Objects and Textiles

Museums Save Ordinary as Extraordinary


10 Tips For Artists and Makers to Attract Web Traffic to Your Site.

Your website works for you, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,  365 days a year -- but some websites are rather lazy and ineffective, while others are really smart and productive. The same goes in regard to specific pages on your site.  The goal, of course, is that every page can be effective at gaining visibility.

Over the past few years, I've spent quite a bit of time learning easy and effective website SEO (Search Engine Optimization) for artists and crafts people. These have all been described at one time or another in posts on ASK Harriete.

My goal has always been to find the easiest and most effective tips that any artist or maker could implement to create effective web pages and sites without looking at numbers or charts.

Berman-Fine-SilverworkRecently, I tried an experiment in which I took my own advice for all the easiest tips and applied them to one page of my website. 

Berman Fine Silverworks is my business which is not glamorous work nor does it cater to typical artistic aspirations. I use my technical skills to repair and polish sterling silver and silverplate. It generates revenue without the frustrations, travel, or cash flow problems of art and craft exhibitions, consignments, or shows.

Customers who find my website bring or send their silver to my studio for repair or polishing. I fix the pieces and the customers pick up the work in a few days.   

Berman-Fine-Silverwork-Candlelabra-repairs My website is the primary marketing tool -- and I meet customers only by appointment in my studio. There isn't even so much as a sign or street location. I do not advertise. I started this website experiment in early 2013 and have been adding the best SEO practices ever since.

In the first six months of 2014, my silver repair revenue has already exceeded last year's gross revenue.  I attribute all of this significant increase in revenue to the improved one-page on my website. Since then I kept adding content.

2017 Update:  In 2016 I completely did both of my website for mobile. Your website must be mobile friendly for the best ranking in Google search. The reality is that more than 50% of traffic on the web is mobile including both phones and tablets. Mobile friendly for different devices is now part of Google search engine algorithm. 

To be fair, this could be attributed to an uptick in the economy or an increase in the Internet search as a tool (no one uses the Yellow Pages anymore.) (2017 update: I have eliminated my business phone and yellow page listing. Everyone finds me on the web.) There is no doubt in my mind that my customers are finding me online. They are calling me from farther away and mailing me their silver repairs. They call and tell me they are looking at my website. To be more specific, my customers were finding my page of silver repair examples.


So here are my simple SEO tips that artists and makers can implement with only the most basic web-savvy tools. No charts. No numbers. Each tip will link to a post that will offer more information on the particular topic, as necessary.



TRY FIXING ONE PAGE of your site.
Do your own experiment and see if you can increase traffic to one page of your website. This won't take too long and you may see that SEO can really make a difference.

1) Spelling and grammar are important. Google admits that this is a search ranking criteria. 

2) Image File Names should describe the image. (Read the entire post or listen to the Youtube lecture. This is super important for image-heavy websites.) Help search engines find your images. 

3) Image descriptions as text on your page should include words that your potential customers may use to find your site. Art speak and artist statements should be clear and understandable to your customer. Each image needs a unique description. 

4) Provide image ALT tags for every image.  (If you are using a template website, this option may be buried in an advanced level SEO, but the image ALT tags are absolutely necessary.)

5)Every page URL should briefly describe page content, topic or theme.

6) Every page should have a unique title and a unigue description in the HTML code. (Template sites may require using the advanced SEO section.)

7) Use one H1 Header tag per page. This is kind of like a chapter title at or near the top of the page. Use it effectively to improve SEO. 

8)  Update page content instead of creating new pages. I try to add images regularly along with new content.  

9)  Avoid all Black Hat SEO practices.  Do not trade links. Link to only quality, authoritative sites relevant to your content. 

10) Edit comments.  Comments on your blog are adding content to your site. Edit for spelling, grammar, and authority. Do not let people leave spammy links as comments on your website or blog.

Yes, I think your website can do wonders to bring in business. Let your images and website information travel for you at the speed of light.
Pick one page, just one page, and fix it up. Do Your Own SEO Test. Craft a better web page with these 10 tips for Artists and Makers to attract web traffic to your website.