Inside the revamped Arab-American National Museum

Inside the revamped Arab-American National Museum
The Arab American National Museum is in Dearborn. (Supplied)
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Updated 18 February 2022

Inside the revamped Arab-American National Museum

Inside the revamped Arab-American National Museum
  • ‘A lot of people see themselves in our exhibits, and they feel validated,’ says museum director

DUBAI: After the COVID-19 pandemic sparked a near-two-year closure, the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, has finally reopened its doors to visitors. As with many cultural institutions around the world, it has been an exceedingly difficult time due to layoffs, lockdowns and overall uncertainty, and — recently — terrible weather in the US has also exacerbated the challenges. 

So there’s a clear sense of relief at the museum now that they are getting things going again. Technology upgrades have been installed and the museum is currently hosting two temporary art exhibitions.

“There’s some excitement about reopening and having people back in the museum and it coming back to life physically. It’s been a long time but, in some ways, it feels very quick,” the museum’s director, Diana Abouali, told Arab News on reopening day.

Founded in 2005, AANM bills itself as America’s first and only museum devoted to telling the stories of Arab-American history and culture. Its location is apt; Dearborn is home to the largest Arab community in the US — around 40 percent of the city’s population is of Lebanese, Syrian, Yemeni, Iraqi, or Palestinian origin. 

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 needs to be some institution that presented a more authoritative narrative of who Arab-Americans were in their own words that countered stereotypes and dispelled misconceptions,” explained Abouali, who was appointed in 2019. “It’s very much a museum about Arab-Americans, by Arab-Americans, for everybody.”

Two decades on from 9/11, Abouali, who is originally from Palestine, says that there has been a noticeable shift in how Arabs in America view themselves, along with a notable level of interest in their community’s diverse backgrounds. 

“I think that Arab-Americans have become confident in who they are,” she said. “This young generation is very aware of their Arab identity. They’re unapologetically Arab.” 

But that has not always been the case in Abouali’s experience. A former academic, who was raised in Kuwait and Canada and educated in the US, she remembers a time when Arab history was censored at her school, as well as the tension 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. That doesn’t happen anymore,” she said. 

Featuring a courtyard, a fountain, and thematic spaces, the interior of AANM pays homage to Middle Eastern and North African design and architectural aesthetics. Through its galleries, the museum details Arabs’ varied contributions 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. There are some important but relatively unknown names highlighted. Take Ruth Joyce Essad, a fashion designer born in 1908, for example. She became one of Detroit’s first couturiers — dressing socialists and singers, including big-band vocalist Dinah Shore. Another interesting personality is the Syrian business owner Leon B. Holwey, who claimed to have co-invented the ice-cream cone in the early 1900s.

Arab-American women. (Supplied)

The museum also boasts a rich archive of images and objects of historical significance, donated by the public. One can see the vintage typewriter of Helen Thomas, the legendary American-Lebanese reporter, who sat in on White House press conferences from the presidencies of John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama. A 1964 press release written by civil rights activist Malcolm X that documents his visit to Saudi Arabia is also owned by the museum. And there are other items that would have belonged to the average Arab-American citizen, from beaded shoes worn by an immigrant initially denied entry to the States to a pill bottle encasing sand from the land of a Palestinian village. 

The museum’s setting feels familiar, like a home to many. “Some people, who might be third- or fourth-generation Arab, come to the museum and they find a photograph of a relative of theirs,” Abouali said. “A lot of people see themselves in our exhibits, and they feel validated.” 

Diana Abouali is the director of AANM. (Supplied)

On a national level, the profile of Arab-Americans was raised last year by President Joe Biden, who made history by establishing National Arab American Heritage Month, which will take place in April every year. 

“The Arab-American community is essential to the fabric of our Nation,” he wrote in a congratulatory letter. 

Such a milestone is, naturally, welcomed by Abouali and her colleagues at the museum.

“I think it’s significant because it’s a recognition that this community exists and is present,” she said. “It’s a contributing segment of society. We need to appreciate the culture and heritage that Arabs bring with them.”