Open for Research: Jewish Culture and the Digital Humanities in a UC Berkeley Undergraduate Apprenticeship at The Magnes

Posted by Francesco Spagnolo on Friday July 4 2014

We are delighted to publish an end-of-year report by Alex Makabeh, a pre-med student at UC Berkeley who enrolled in the UC Berkeley Undergraduate Research Apprentice Program (URAP) at The Magnes during the the Spring Semester.

The day that I began to look for a research apprenticeship I had written up a checklist for myself that contained the suitable criteria: a wet lab geared towards the fields of environmental science and medicine and tailored, if possible, to the pursuit of the development of the modern field of psychology. At first glance, many individuals (I am not an exception) would say that a research position at a museum would have zero contribution on the development of my skillset in order to make me a well-rounded physician. With the background in the following paragraphs you may be surprised to see the true expanse of connections that I have been able to draw through the comparison of these two environments.

​At the third largest Jewish Museum collection in the nation, The Magnes, I spent an entire semester strengthening my curiosity about Jewish life, art and culture, my culture. When I initially applied to the program, I had a meek understanding about the history of the Jewish Diaspora, but I told the museum’s curator, Dr. Francesco Spagnolo, that I am willing to learn. If not for my connection to their cause and my dedication to fueling my curiosity, I do not think this invaluable experience would have ever been considered an option. This same driving force is what I feel the field of medicine needs more of and this is what this research program has helped to impart in me. The knowledge that I accumulated throughout my childhood, about Judaism and Jewish tradition, served as the backbone from which this curiosity branched.

​At UC Berkeley’s Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, I was assigned the task of working with the online catalogue to conduct in-house research on artifacts that I felt personally connected to. I would then add geo-location information to collection records via the Google Maps embed module. Through this method I can use Google Maps to show the street view of the creation place of an artifact, and better understand its provenance and history.

The use of Google Map street view has provided me with an entirely new dimension in grasping the historical context of an object. I also learned how to share the inventoried items across social media platforms, such as Flickr. I worked with the Flickr photo integration software and I developed the skills to understand proper grouping techniques for historical items.

My assignment included creating a set representing a group of artifacts in the Magnes Collection related to “Jewish Life in Iran.” As my parents are both of Iranian descent, this topic felt particularly compelling to me. I conducted research on Middle Eastern Jewish artifacts focusing on the changes in the way religion and society meshed through time. As I worked on documenting a collection of 150 artifacts from Iran, I felt a personal calling to look deeper into my culture, which I found to have much richer roots.

Francesco Spagnolo, my supervisor for my apprenticeship and the Curator of the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life, provided me with nothing but encouragement to learn about what I felt passionately drawn to. My situation was unique: as an environmental science/ pre-medical Cal student I questioned the value of this research apprenticeship. He provided me with ideas of topics that would be beneficial for me to look into as well, and the more he suggested, the more I became intrigued. Francesco met with me often to not only touch base and to be a form of support but most of all he was a continual source of inspiration to me.

​Starting from the day of my interview, Francesco and the rest of the Magnes team truly inspired me. I clearly demonstrated my interest in having the apprenticeship at the museum but I felt there was one big issue: I was not sure if this experience would truly be valuable for someone that is interested in science, medicine and eventually intends to attend medical school. He proved me wrong. Francesco showed me how artifacts can give hints about their own history and that each artifact requires individual scrutiny when conducting research, all of which is in constant development.

Artifacts ironically seem to have a similarity to the patients that come to the doctor for a check-up. When I become a doctor, my patients as well would have a health history and, just like an artifact has a history that includes its provenance and uses across the Jewish diaspora, I will need to conduct research on their illnesses and symptoms.

In the course of my Research Apprentice Program, I also learned how to properly handle artifacts at the museum, under the expert guidance of the Registrar of The Magnes Collection, Julie Franklin. I soon realized that this is a skill that would be very valuable for when I become a physician and need to have a developed bedside manner.

Looking back, I am humored to see how this research experience has defied all of my expectations. The URAP program has been an all-embracing, meaningful experience for me.

Alex Makabeh

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