Arab American National Museum is the first and only museum of its kind
The metro Detroit area is an area rich with cultural institutions that celebrate the heritage, history, legacy, and continued contributions of artistic, cultural, and intellectual importance of a number of different ethnic and cultural groups. The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit is the world’s largest institution dedicated to the African American experience. The Holocaust Memorial Center Zekelman Family Campus in West Bloomfield was the first freestanding institution of its kind in the United States, and is considered the most provocative of the country’s Holocaust memorial museums. And in Dearborn, the Arab American National Museum is the first and only museum in the United States devoted to Arab American history and culture.
If you’re familiar at all with Dearborn, Michigan or the Arab community that calls Southeastern Michigan home, you might have heard the folk statistic that Dearborn has the largest Arab population outside of the Middle East. There’s a shade of truth to that, though to the letter of its wording it’s incorrect – Southern California has a larger ethnic Arab population, though spread across a much larger geographic area. That said, Southeast Michigan has the highest concentration of Arab Americans in the nation, making this area a natural fit for a museum dedicated to Arab culture.
The Arab American National Museum (AANM) is part of a larger nonprofit called ACCESS – Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services – a 44-year-old human services agency based in Dearborn, and the largest Arab American community nonprofit in the nation.
ACCESS is a “human services” agency but it goes far beyond the basic social services that the term calls to mind. The organization covers everything from social services to youth education to entrepreneurship and employment training, offering a vast range of social, economic, health, and educational services to the diverse Arab American population of Southeastern Michigan.
In 1986, the founders of AANM had the bold idea that the arts are integral to the well-being of an individual as well, so they started a Cultural Arts Department through ACCESS doing cultural competency training on who Arab Americans are to the greater public, and also offering cultural programs for Arab Americans. The AANM is an outgrowth of that.
In the wake of 9/11, the need for an Arab American cultural museum became ever more apparent, as Arab Americans were faced with extreme prejudice and persecution from other Americans who did not understand their culture. An effort went underway to go across the country and ask people from Arab communities in cities like Los Angeles, New York, and D.C. what they wanted to see in an Arab American museum, and if they would support it as a national community.
The Arab American National Museum opened in May 2005 after what was a relatively short amount of planning time. The museum is truly a national one, the first and only one of its kind highlighting the experiences, objects, and art of Arab Americans from all walks of life all across the country. It is the only Affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution in Southeastern Michigan, and is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, through which only six percent of the nation’s museums are accredited: major designations considering this is only their tenth year of operation.
Unlike other museums, the AANM is a true community-based museum, focused more on people than on objects. “We’re a community-building museum,” says Devon Akmon, Executive Director of the AANM. “Our focus, first and foremost, is about building a community.”
That community is both a local and a national one. The AANM produces programs and events locally as well as across the country; in fact, about a third of their programming takes place outside of Michigan, and there are several cities they work closely with that have large Arab American populations – including New York, D.C., Houston, Jacksonville, and throughout Southern California – to design programs that represent those local communities that are still tied to the vision of the national organization based in Dearborn.
One way they do this is through touring exhibits. Patriots & Peacemakers: Arab Americans in Service to Our Country is currently on display at the U.S. Diplomacy Center and has been traveling for four years now in educational and cultural institutions. The exhibit tells true stories of the heroism and self-sacrifice of Arab Americans serving our country, and is significant because it takes the Arab American story and presents it to a mainstream audience in a mainstream venue and places that story within a national, mainstream context.
Akmon says that one of AANM’s key strategies is to create histories that explore topics of immigration, migration, and displacement, and share them with other ethnic cultures, highlighting experiences that are similar but unique. “This essentially begins to break down barriers and dispel stereotypes,” he says. “We’re constantly striving to finds ways to connect people both Arabic and non-Arabic.” Especially in a post-9/11 world in which conflicts among people in Arab countries continue to affect American perceptions. “There is a constant push-pull. It’s constant work. It doesn’t stop.”
Little Syria, NY: The Life & Legacy of an Immigrant Community is another exhibit developed by AANM. It focuses on the first major neighborhood of Arab Americans in the country, located in lower Manhattan from the late 1800s until the 1950s, when the community was displaced by the construction of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and later the World Trade Center. This exhibit documents the neighborhood’s history as well its religious and cultural institutions and newspapers, historic “firsts” for the Arab American community. The exhibit’s tour will end in the fall of 2016 at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, a reminder that the Arab American immigration story is just one small part of America’s immigration story.
“One of the complexities in telling the Arab American story is that they’ve been coming [to America] for hundreds of years,” explains Akmon. “They come from 22 different countries with different religions backgrounds. They are incredibly diverse; there is no monolith narrative. Because they are so diverse, we tell individual stories to build empathy. Their stories are essentially the American story. They show that there’s a greater American story at play. [We want people to see these stories and think], ‘Wow, that story is not so different than my own family’s.'”
Another exhibit currently on tour is Creative Dissent: Arts of the Arab World Uprisings, and it focuses on the creative output from the Arab world as part of the Arab Spring.
The Dearborn museum itself has four permanent exhibits: Coming to America, Living in America, Making an Impact, and Arab Civilization: Our Heritage. Current temporary exhibits include The Youth/Dhallinyarada, 13 massive photographs of young men actively and positively engaged in their Somali community and American society (pictured above with Akmon).
In metro Detroit, AANM looks to reach new audiences and promote Arab American arts and culture while dispelling myths, stereotypes, and xenophobic beliefs about Arab peoples through various programming. This year the AANM had an entire film festival of its own within the Cinetopia International Film Festival. The Concert of Colors, which just held its 23rd annual event, celebrates the diversity of the region through music. Yalla Eat! walking tours take people down Warren Avenue through the heart of the Arab American shopping district in East Dearborn or through Eastern Market in Detroit to visit Arab-owned bakeries, coffee shops, produce markets, butchers, and other food purveyors.
“We look forward to using our environment to get people out and immerse themselves in the culture beyond the museum,” says Akmon. “We’re about creating experiences and looking at unique elements of the museum that are educational and fun that also involve the community in the process too.”
Earlier this year the AANM inaugurated their 4,700-square-foot flex art space called The Annex, essentially a concrete box with state-of-the-art AV equipment and a collapsible stage that allows for a greater variety of programming and events outside of museum hours that might include community-produced plays, language lessons, gathering space for other nonprofits and ethnic communities that don’t have facilities of their own, even children’s birthday parties. “It really allows us to function more as a cultural center,” says Akmon. “It’s a community gathering space and allows us to really run the gamut in terms of community engagement. It’s pretty dynamic in terms of its usage.”
The Arab American National Museum is currently a Knight Arts Challenge 2015 finalist with the hopes of launching an artist-in-residence program at the as yet under construction City Hall Artspace Lofts in downtown East Dearborn, across the street from the museum, which will feature 53 affordable live/work spaces for artists.
“Our corner of Michigan and Schaefer will truly be a cultural corner,” says Akmon. “We will build out first Arab American artist residency program in that space, bringing in Arab artists from across the country and around the work to produce new work and design community engagement programs while in town. This is part of our creative placemaking strategy to help revitalize this area. [An Arab artist residency program] is pretty much unprecedented on this scale.”
As the country’s first and only Arab American museum, the AANM is under quite a bit of pressure to do it right and do it well. “It’s an incredible responsibility,” Akmon says. “We think about that a lot. We don’t have a lot of margin for error because we are such a public presence for the Arab American community. It’s important that we do good work and get it right.”