The country’s only Arab-American museum is “much more than a building”



DEARBORN, Michigan – Despite the rain, a group of tourists left the Arab-American National Museum with clipboards and maps. Participants were encouraged to lead with their noses as they explore Dearborn, Michigan.

While walking, the participants in Yalla Smell! tower dug their noses into flowers, plants, trees, walls, sculptures, panels and even rain, paying attention to previously unnoticed smells. They then wrote descriptions of the smells – metallic, earthy, wood, rust, mold, pink – on a map to contribute to a global database of city sensory maps.

Dana El-Masri, perfumer and artist in residence at the museum, urged attendees to distribute and assess the intensity and duration of the scents. She wanted people to come closer, scratch surfaces, and crush plant leaves – if any – for their scent investigation. The group discovered expected and unexpected smells of concrete, exhaust, metal, rust, basil, dill, marigolds – and sumac, which El-Masri says are an important spice for cooking. Arabian but grow wild all over Michigan.

Arab-American National Museum artist-in-residence Dana El Masri prepares materials for her olfactory memory workshop for people to smell and then share in the memories they conjure up. Photo by Kathryn Grabowks

As the last drops of rain bounced off the oil on the sidewalk and turned to vapor, a woman asked for help describing the smell, and El-Masri replied: rain.

“We process smell, memories and emotions in one place in the brain,” El-Masri said, pointing to his olfactory center in the front part of his brain, before discussing his research and creative work on the role. of perfume in different cultures. In some Arab cultures, scents are incorporated into greetings, such as “May you have a morning of jasmine”.

Although the museum has been closed since March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, its artist-in-residence program has continued, virtually and in person, to bring artists of Arab descent to the institution. El-Masri is an interdisciplinary artist and educator of Egyptian and Lebanese origin from Montreal, Canada. She is also the owner of Parfums Jazmin Saraï, an artisanal line of hand-made unisex fragrances and fragrances. His work is multisensory and deeply rooted in his experience of cultural and global life.


From June to August, the Arab-American National Museum presented photos of SURA Arts Academy students, including that of Francesca Gregory, for a showcase exhibition. The pupils told stories through their photos, addressing the central question of the exhibition: “Who am I?” »Photo by Jacob Ermete

In downtown Dearborn, Michigan, across from Old Town Hall, is the Arab American National Museum (AANM), the country’s first and only museum dedicated to history, l art and culture of American Arabs. The museum is also an important community space, located in the oldest, largest and most diverse Arab-American community in the United States.

“We hope to be a space for everyone to learn more about the history and culture of Arab Americans,” said Matthew Jaber Stiffler, AANM’s research and content manager and lecturer in the Department of Culture. from the University of Michigan. Arab Americans can share their stories, whether through their art or performance, or by donating family photographs and objects that draw on the museum’s growing archive of historical, cultural, musical objects. and artistic. “We’re also more than a building with stuff in it,” he added.

A community space

Arab American National Museum, Dearborn, Michigan rear entrance

The exterior of the Arab-American National Museum. Photo by Frances Kai-Hwa Wang / PBS NewsHour

The museum is the cultural arm of ACCESS (Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services), the largest Arab-American nonprofit community in the country. ACCESS Was found by a group of Arab-American volunteers in 1971 to help Arab-American immigrants adjust to life in the United States During the 1980s, ACCESS developed an arts department that gave educational presentations, organized festivals and programs, and even had a small museum at the ACCESS headquarters in Dearborn.

“The dream has always been to have a stand-alone museum, and so in 2000 a national fundraising campaign was launched,” Stiffler said. “After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and the resulting anti-Arab reaction, the community was even more adamant that their true story be told.” The museum opened about four years after the attacks.

Prior to the museum’s opening, core staff traveled to Los Angeles to train at the Japanese American National Museum, another national ethnic museum. Then staff and volunteers went out into the community to collect oral histories and donations of personal artifacts. The museum was then built around these stories and artifacts to tell the stories of the people who came to America from 22 Arab countries in four waves of immigration spanning over 150 years.

The central galleries of the museum are organized into sections devoted to contributions from the Arab world. In these galleries are displayed some of the suitcases and trunks that people carried with them when they arrived in America and the special personal items they brought, including 1920s beaded shoes from Syria and a Palestinian thobe garment. Visitors can enter a recreational kitchen that displays items of cultural significance to Arab Americans. Inside a refrigerator are hummus, rose water, and products made by Arab American companies like Melody Farms dairy. Nearby are ceramic pottery and glass tea cups.

Visitors can also listen to Arabic musical instruments and celebrate the achievements of famous Arab Americans, such as “American Top 40” radio host Casey Kasem, reporter and White House correspondent Helen Thomas, lawyer. consumer safety and Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader, boxer Sadam Ali, poet Kahlil Gibran and many more.

“A collection like ours serves as an archive of the artistic practice of Arab artists who live and work in America, whether they are American citizens or members of the Arab diaspora,” said AANM director Diana Abouali, at PBS NewsHour. “The works in our collection should be viewed in the larger context of American art produced in the 20th and 21st centuries, and as engaging in various movements and approaches that have defined modern and contemporary American art. Some of these artists have been overlooked and have not been incorporated into the narrative of American art. “

One of AANM’s earliest commissions, and currently on display, is “Soft Powers,” the first solo exhibition by Yemeni-American visual artist Yasmine Nasser Diaz. It features a site-specific art installation that recreates the 1990s teenage bedroom of two fictional Yemeni American sisters in the Midwest. The exhibit reflects, in part, how the children of immigrants must code the shift between the collectivist ideals of their families’ culture and the individualistic ideals of American society.

While the museum is closed due to the pandemic, staff hosted an online music festival, in their pajamas, from Yasmine Nasser Diaz’s “Teenage Bedroom” installation. AANM video

American Arabs have always been part of the “great American mosaic”

The museum is also a popular destination for school trips and teacher training, from elementary to university level. Museum tours and outreach programs also help students at Dearborn Public Schools and other neighboring school districts to meet across cultures, have positive dialogue and get to know each other, said Hassane Jaafar, principal at retired and administrator of Dearborn Public Schools.

But space is a particularly important resource for young Arab Americans to learn more about their heritage and develop a sense of pride at a time when Arab Americans are often stereotyped and intimidated.

“It is vital that our younger generation grow up knowing that they are an integral part of this great American mosaic and that they are proud of the fact that their ancestors were instrumental in shaping our modern society,” Jaafar said. It means recognizing the achievements of Arab Americans in medicine, education, automobile manufacturing, the military, law enforcement, journalism, philanthropy and commerce, has t -he adds.

The museum also offers professional photography classes for middle and high school students, a program available to youth in the metro Detroit area since 2000. During the COVID-19 pandemic, classes were conducted online. Photography classes became an outlet for art therapy, as refugee and immigrant teens began to document their lives at home. The museums made the photos of the teens available online and created an outward facing exhibit that showed some of the images in the museum’s large front windows facing Michigan Avenue for the whole community to see.

"inner beauty" by Maha Abu Baker

Maha Abu Baker’s photo, titled “Inner Beauty,” which was featured in an online exhibit by Sura Art Academy students on the Arab-American National Museum website.

For Maha Abu Baker, a 16-year-old Yemeni American in Dearborn, photography is a way to capture moments in life that people don’t pay attention to, as well as “communicating a story without words.”

“I use photography as a means of relaxation in stressful times,” she wrote in her artist statement for the photo exhibition.

In one photo, a single drop of water covers and refracts the word “family” inside a dictionary. In another, a child looks at himself in a mirror. Both hands on her cheeks. The title of the photo is simply: “inner beauty”.


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