The Arab American National Museum (AANM) is the first and only museum in the United States that is dedicated to preserving and sharing the unique culture and experiences of Arab Americans. Located in Dearborn, Michigan, the museum first opened its doors in 2005 and has since curated programs and exhibits that display the vibrant culture and contributions of Arab Americans to encourage an informed and personalized view of the community.
Since its founding, the Arab American National Museum (AANM)’s mission has been to document, preserve and present the history, culture and contributions of Arab Americans. The exhibitions cover the Arab world and the history of Arab Americans from the first immigrants who arrived in the late 19th century to today.
The Museum offers safe spaces for open dialogue and community gatherings and provides educational opportunities for children and students of all ages to expand their knowledge and appreciation of Arab American history and culture. The Museum also brings to light the shared experiences of immigrants and ethnic groups, paying tribute to the diversity of our nation.
AANM works with established and emerging artists of all artistic mediums to uplift their work and share it with our regional and national audiences. AANM has one of the most extensive archives of Arab American historical documents, oral histories and artifacts.
Latina Republic had the opportunity to speak with Dave Serio, the museum’s Educator and Public Programming Specialist, who is in charge of the various programs in the Museum and serves as the conveyor of its core information. Serio emphasizes the importance of displaying the experiences and narratives of Arab Americans to dispel the negative stereotypes imposed on the community and also to provide a space for the community to come together. AANM tells the Arab American story through the voices and experiences of Arab Americans.
SURA Arts Academy
The SURA Arts Academy was founded before the Museum by ACCESS and was rehoused within the Museum. In Arabic, “sura” is the word for photograph. SURA helps students learn about the power of photography as a tool to share their story with the world. Students’ work is later exhibited at AANM’s annual SURA Student Photography Exhibition.
“The goal with this program is to teach students, traditionally, how to use photography as a way to tell their own unique story. One really big thing that the museum does a really good job at is showcasing the story of Arab Americans and taking power back so that we can tell our own story versus other folks telling our story for us and often in a negative light, or at least not with the most factual information. That’s really one of the reasons the museum exists and this also seeps through into our programming like SURA.”
Arab Film Festival
The Arab Film Festival is an annual event hosted by the museum. Many of the films showcased by both Arab World and Arab American artists are unlikely to reach traditional American commercial theaters. The genres include drama, comedy and documentary, in both short-form and feature lengths. Many of the Arab American films make their Michigan and/or U.S. debut here. The museum is a vital platform for Arab and Arab American films and filmmakers to share their artistry and their stories. The success and impact of the festival was the impetus for the integration of the Arab Film Series, a monthly event that continues to showcase films from the community.
“We really try to bring voices that you won’t normally find at film festivals. There are so many film festivals that exist, but there are very, very few film festivals that focus on Arab and or Arab American cinema. Our goal is to give a platform for Arab and Arab American filmmakers to share their perspectives, their voice with the world. We aim to showcase a diverse array of Arab and Arab diaspora cinema, to accurately reflect our diverse community. Traditionally, we have conversations afterwards as well, because a lot of folks want to hear from the filmmaker and/or issues brought up in the film.”
JAM3A is the Arabic word for gathering, and is the name of the four-day event held by AANM to bring Arab artists from the Arab world and the United States together. The event showcases musical artists as well as speakers and creators to celebrate and promote their work in an inclusive community environment.
The Museum’s core exhibits range from the rich history of the Arab community back home to the current Arab community in the United States and abroad. The exhibits highlight the personal narratives of the community through various pieces that reinvigorate the essence of the community in one space.
“As the Museum was being built, folks went out to the community and they collected different personal items, different stories, different oral histories, and brought them together to create our institution. It was like a culmination of all these ideas, experiences, object stories, and kind of creating the Museum around those personal items and objects so about ninety five percent of everything in our institution, in our core galleries is donated from the larger community,” said Serio about the Museum’s foundational characteristics.
Contributions from the Arab World
A visitor’s introduction to the Museum begins with its courtyard, a space that displays various contributions from Arab communities across different countries and ranging from the arts to the sciences. Displays of musical instruments to the courtyard’s own architectural design all showcase the community’s influence. The introductory exhibit also includes a map of the various Arab countries that range from Northern Africa to Southwest Asian countries, emphasizing the large variety of individuals who live within the Arab community.
Coming to America
The Coming to America exhibit highlights the journey of Arabs who immigrated to the United States during four different time periods, each presenting their own adversities and unique characteristics at the time. The first period of migration can be seen from the 1880s to 1924, where an influx of migrants began to arrive in the United States to reunite with family members in the United States or for work.
The second period of migration was during the years of 1925 to 1965, which saw fewer migrants due to the anti-immigrant sentiments that grew out of World War I, as well as the passing of laws such as the Immigration Act of 1924 and the Quota Act of 1921, that restricted migration.
The third period of migration occurred during the year of 1966 to the 1990s, when a large influx of migrants arrived in the United States following unrest in their home countries, such as those fleeing the Lebanese Civil War and Palestinian refugees finding permanent homes.
This period also included the migration of professionals from Arab countries to fill positions in the U.S. The last period has been an ongoing movement of migrants since the 1990s as a result of various political and economic factors that have become an impetus for many to make the move to the U.S. From the devastating effects of direct U.S. intervention to civil turmoil, many Arab states continue to experience the migration of its citizens.
“We highlight folks who came willingly and packed their own suitcase and said, ‘Hey, we’re going over to the US because we want adventure, we want a change of scenery or we want a better paying job.’ You also have folks on the flipside who came over as refugees, who didn’t have a choice and had a very different experience versus somebody who could take their time, pack their suitcase, instead having to grab their belongings and run out of their house. We try to give a big picture of all these different experiences and try to not only talk about the diversity of the community in terms of countries, where they’re coming from or culture, but also their experiences in terms of immigration.”
Living in America
The exhibit titled, “Living in America,” provides a look into the lives of Arabs living in the United States through a visual representation of their daily lives as well as the experiences they may have faced. The exhibit is composed of interactive pieces that allow visitors to immerse themselves in a replication of daily life recreated through models of kitchens and bedrooms.
“This is probably one of our most interactive galleries. One of my favorite spaces is our kitchen exhibit, where you can walk through the kitchen and open the fridge, open the kitchen cabinets and the drawers to see what type of foods and objects you might find in a typical Arab American kitchen. It’s almost like you’re transported into a traditional Arab American household. You’ll see the spices, you’ll see the different foods that we use, you’ll see the giant pots and pans because families tend to be very large, and you’ll see the ingredients that we use to cook for holidays. We focus on what it’s like to be an Arab American here in the United States.
We have a teenager’s room where we talk about some of the issues that youth are facing; identity crises, retaining the Arabic language, name-changes, being in a school system and dealing with some of the stereotypes that you may face as a young Arab American. One of the other big pieces we have is our stereotypes room, and that’s a really great space where you can look at all these different images and see how the Arab American community and the Arab world in general is stereotyped. We do a lot of really great conversations on our tours about, what are you seeing in these images? How are these images negative? What’s making them negative?
It’s also a great way to connect with other communities. So even though we focus on the Arab American experience, we don’t exclusively talk about Arab Americans. We weave in other narratives. For example, it’s a great space to have conversations about how the Latinx community has been affected, how they’re depicted in films and in the news. Same thing with African Americans, Asian Americans, women in general. So it’s a really great space to have folks be able to relate to one another and really dispel those stereotypes and help to kind of uplift folks all at the same time.”
Making an Impact
“The last core exhibit is Making an Impact and it highlights the Arab Americans who have made a major impact in society. It focuses on very well-known figures like Ralph Nader, Jamie Farr and Danny Thomas who opened St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital.
We also have folks who also made an amazing impact, but are maybe not as well known, like Candace Lightner, who is the founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Sadam Ali, an Olympic and professional boxer, and Rana El Kaliouby, the co-founder of the Affectiva app. We also have the writer and the director of the movie, The Exorcist, which was a great movie, very scary, but created by an Arab American. We highlight big names and we highlight things that people might recognize, but they don’t know were created or established by an Arab American.”
“I feel like personal narratives and personal stories are one of the most impactful ways to get your message across. I know I’ve been doing tours for the last 10 years here at the museum and one thing that always, always captures people’s attention, are personal stories – either in our galleries or from our tour guides. I can show you this exhibit and how beautiful it is. But the minute I tell my own personal story or reference one of the other stories you can just see, it’s like everybody snaps back into attention.
When I was in school, specifically high school, I never heard of anything coming from the Arab world. The only thing I ever heard in my history classes was very Eurocentric. ‘Nothing was happening in the Arab world. It was depicted as just this barren, empty land that nobody smart was living in because nothing happened.’ But when I came to the museum as a guest first and then I started working here, I learned about our courtyard space the Arab world’s contributions. I learned about the rich history of the Arab world, like when Europe was in the depression, the Dark Ages.
This is when the Arab world was at one of its many peaks, where, culture and art and books from Europe were translated into Arabic and people were living very well. Things were being invented, like the astrolabe was invented. You have surgical instruments that were being developed during the time. So there was so much happening. And so for me, using personal stories is a much more clear way to get the point across, because, again, history sometimes omits a lot of information and whole groups of people. That’s another thing that unites other communities together, too. It’s not just the Arab community that has faced and is facing that. It’s many other communities that are, again, often omitted from history. “
“There are so many stereotypes. The major thing that we really try to dispel is that Arabs are dangerous, inherently violent or more violent than other groups, that women are oppressed, or that Islam is this foreign weird religion that’s not like other religions.
The first one is how folks perceive the Arab American community. A lot of folks perceive the Arab American community as foreign, not very Americanized, whatever that means, that doesn’t necessarily want to or won’t assimilate into what it means to be an American. We’ve heard that numerous times with other groups as well. I think we do a really good job of showing the wide variety of Arab Americans. You do have some who have completely assimilated into American culture; they’ve changed their name and they don’t speak Arabic, which is fine.
On the flipside of that, you have folks who only speak Arabic and who are very closely tied to the language, the culture, things like that. We try to give a really wide range of perspectives when it comes to that specific stereotype. Even though we’re an areligious institution, we still talk about Islam and other religions through Arab Americans who practice them. For example, we have a religion case in our courtyard where we highlight the three major monotheistic religions that Arab Americans are connected to.
Most folks assume that Arab equals Muslim and Muslim equals Arab, which is not true. We kind of dissect that idea. We have obviously many Arab Americans who are Muslim, but you also have Arab Americans who are Christian and Arab Americans who identify as Jewish, which is also something that catches a lot of people off guard.
There are Arabs who are Jewish that still live in some of these countries overseas in the Arab world. We talk about how there’s many similarities between Islam, Christianity and Judaism. If you come to the Museum, you’ll be able to see the case and you’ll be able to see a lot of the similarities, whether it’s in architecture, whether it’s in messaging within the holy books, it’s related to prayer or fasting, all these different things.
There’s so many similarities and people just completely overlook them. The last big thing would be the existence of marginalized communities in the Arab and Arab American community. For example, we get a lot of questions about the queer community. I appreciate these questions because people feel comfortable to ask them, but it also kind of catches you off guard as to how little folks actually know. We talk about, for example, are you allowed to be queer in one of the Arab countries or will you be killed if you’re queer and you’re an Arab American? Can the two coexist?
And so we spend some time unpacking that and how, again, it’s just like everywhere else. You have some folks who are not supportive at all with being queer in some Arab and Arab-American households and then on the other side, you have folks who have Arab American queer events that are out in the park, and you have families that are coming to support. So I think people forget that the Arab American community is just as diverse as everybody else. You have all the scenarios; Yes, that does happen. But you know, that also happens in every single other community. It’s not at a higher rate. It’s just the stereotypes that exist that make you think that that’s the same thing with being queer or whatever the case is.”
AANM is one of just six Michigan-based Affiliates of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. and is accredited by the American Alliance of Museums. AANM is a founding member of the Detroit-area arts collective CultureSource as well as the Immigration and Civil Rights Network of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience and the Michigan Alliance for Cultural Accessibility, and is a member of the National Performance Network. AANM is an institution of ACCESS, the largest Arab American community nonprofit in the nation, founded in 1971.
The museum is currently closed to the general public due to the pandemic. To learn more visit https://arabamericanmuseum.org/
Kimberly is an undergraduate student majoring in Political Science at UCI. She grew up in a predominantly Latinx community in Southeast LA and is the daughter of two Honduran immigrants. Having seen the obstacles that many immigrants face first-hand has inspired her to pursue a career in immigration law. She hopes to amplify the voices of those in the community during a time where immigration has become one of the most polarizing issues in modern politics. Making sure that underrepresented stories and voices are heard is important in removing the negative stigma around the immigrant community and she hopes to contribute to this change.