DUBAI: After the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a nearly two-year closure, the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, has finally reopened to visitors. As with many cultural institutions around the world, it has been an extremely difficult time due to layoffs, closures and general uncertainty, and – recently – bad weather in the United States has also exacerbated the challenges. .
So there’s a distinct sense of relief at the museum now that they’re getting things back up and running. Technological upgrades have been installed and the museum currently hosts two temporary art exhibits.
“There is a certain excitement about reopening and bringing people back into the museum and bringing it back to life physically. It’s been a long time but in some ways it feels very fast,” museum director Diana Abouali told Arab News on the day of the reopening.
Founded in 2005, AANM bills itself as America’s first and only museum dedicated to telling the stories of Arab-American history and culture. Its location is apt; Dearborn is home to the largest Arab community in the United States – about 40% of the city’s population is of Lebanese, Syrian, Yemeni, Iraqi or Palestinian descent.
It took a defining event of violence on American soil to galvanize efforts to establish the museum, which has a vital educational mandate.
“The impact of 9/11 on the Arab and Muslim community made it clear that there needed to be an institution that presents a more authoritative account of who Arab Americans were in their own words, that counters stereotypes and dispels misconceptions. false,” explained Abouali, who was appointed in 2019. “It really is a museum about Arab Americans, by Arab Americans, for everyone.”
Two decades after 9/11, Abouali, who is originally from Palestine, says there has been a noticeable shift in how Arabs in America view themselves, as well as a noticeable level of interest in the diverse backgrounds of their community.
“I think Arab Americans have gained confidence in themselves,” she said. “This young generation is very aware of its Arab identity. They are resolutely Arab.
But that has not always been the case in Abouali’s experience. A former academic, who grew up in Kuwait and Canada and was educated in the United States, she recalls a time when Arab history was censored in her school, as well as tensions in the late 1980s and early 1990s during the first Intifada.
“When I was in college, I remember we had an international day and I couldn’t fly a Palestinian flag. It doesn’t happen anymore,” she said.
Featuring a courtyard, fountain and themed spaces, AANM’s interior pays homage to the design and architectural aesthetics of the Middle East and North Africa. Through its galleries, the museum details the varied contributions of Arabs to humanity and the phases of Arab immigration: the challenges of coming to America, the challenges of establishing a life there, and the impact of Arab Americans in the public and private spheres.
It tells the stories of peddlers, entrepreneurs, scholars, military men and women, artists and entertainers. Some important but relatively unknown names are highlighted. Take Ruth Joyce Essad, a fashion designer born in 1908, for example. She became one of Detroit’s first seamstresses, dressing socialites and singers, including big band singer Dinah Shore. Another interesting figure is Syrian entrepreneur Leon B. Holwey, who claims to have co-invented the ice cream cone in the early 1900s.
The museum also has a rich archive of images and objects of historical significance, donated by the public. On view is the vintage typewriter of Helen Thomas, the legendary Lebanese-American journalist, who attended White House press conferences for presidencies from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama. A 1964 press release written by civil rights activist Malcolm X that documents his visit to Saudi Arabia also belongs to the museum. And there are other items that would have belonged to the average Arab-American citizen, from beaded shoes worn by an immigrant originally barred from entering the United States to a pill bottle containing sand from the land of a Palestinian village.
The setting of the museum feels familiar, like a home to many. “Some people, who might be third or fourth generation Arabs, come to the museum and find a picture of someone close to them,” Abouali said. “A lot of people see themselves in our exhibits and feel validated.”
Nationally, the profile of Arab Americans was raised last year by President Joe Biden, who made history by instituting National Arab American Heritage Month, which will take place in April of each year.
“The Arab-American community is essential to the fabric of our nation,” he wrote in a congratulatory letter.
Such a step is, naturally, welcomed by Abouali and his colleagues at the museum.
“I think it’s important because it’s an acknowledgment that this community exists and is there,” she said. “It’s a segment of society that contributes. We must appreciate the culture and heritage that the Arabs bring with them.