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In this pre-pandemic photo, visitors interact with an exhibit at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. The museum has been closed to the public since March 2020, due to the global pandemic. Photo courtesy of Arab American National Museum

The only Arab American museum in the nation is 'much more than a building'

DEARBORN, Mich. — Despite the rain, a tour group set off from the Arab American National Museum with clipboards and maps. Participants were encouraged to lead with their noses in their exploration of Dearborn, Michigan.

As they walked, the participants in the Yalla Smell! tour pressed their noses into flowers, plants, trees, walls, sculptures, signs, and even the rain, paying attention to previously unnoticed smells. They then jotted descriptions of the smells down — metallic, earthy, wood, rust, mildew, rose — on a map to help contribute to a global city database of sensory maps.

Dana El-Masri, a perfumer and artist-in-residence at the museum, urged participants to spread out and rate the intensity and duration of the smells. She wanted people to get close, scrape surfaces, and crush plant leaves — when appropriate — for their olfactory survey. The group uncovered expected and unexpected scents of concrete, exhaust, metal, rust, basil, dill, marigolds — and sumac, which El-Masri explained is an important spice for Arab cooking but grows wild everywhere in Michigan.

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

As the last few drops of rain bounced off the oil on the pavement and turned to steam, a woman asked for help describing that smell, and El-Masri replied, "Oh, that's petrichor," naming the pleasant, earthy smell of dust after rain.

"We process smell, memories, and emotions in the same place in the brain," El-Masri said, pointing to her olfactory center in the front part of her brain, before going on to discuss her research and creative work looking at the role of scent in different cultures. In some Arab cultures, scents are incorporated into greetings, such as, "May you have a jasmine kind of morning."

Although the museum has been closed since March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, its artist-in-residence program has continued, virtually as well as in-person, to bring artists of Arab descent to the institution. El-Masri is an interdisciplinary artist and educator of Egyptian and Lebanese descent from Montreal, Canada. She is also the owner of Parfums Jazmin Saraï, an artisan line of handmade small-batch, unisex perfumes and scented products. Her artwork is multisensory and deeply rooted in her cultural and global life experience.

In June through August, the Arab American National Museum displayed photos from SURA Arts Academy students, including this one from Francesca Gregory, for an in-window exhibit. Students told stories through their photos, addressing the central question to the exhibit was "Who am I?" Photo by Jacob Ermete

In the city center of Dearborn, Michigan, across the street from the former City Hall, stands the Arab American National Museum (AANM), the first and only museum in the country dedicated to the history, art, and culture of Arab Americans. The museum is also an important community space, located in the oldest, largest, and most diverse Arab American community in the U.S.

"We hope to be a space for all people to learn about the history and culture of Arab Americans," said Matthew Jaber Stiffler, AANM research and content manager and University of Michigan Department of American Culture lecturer. Arab Americans are able to share their stories, whether through their art or performance, or by donating family photographs and objects that build on the museum's growing archive of historical, cultural, musical, and arts items. "We are also much more than a building with stuff in it," he added.

A community-based 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 community nonprofit in the country. ACCESS was founded by a group of Arab American volunteers in 1971 to help Arab American immigrants adjust to life in the U.S. During the 1980s, ACCESS developed an arts department that gave educational presentations, hosted festivals and programming, and even had a small museum within ACCESS's headquarters in Dearborn.

"The dream was always to have a stand-alone museum, and so in 2000, a national fundraising campaign was launched," Stiffler said. "Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the resulting anti-Arab backlash, the community was even more adamant that their real story should be told." The museum opened its doors about four years after the attacks.

Before the museum opened, 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 those narratives and items to tell the stories of the people who came to America, from 22 Arab countries, in four waves of immigration over more than 150 years.

The museum's core galleries are set up in sections devoted to the contributions from the Arab world. On display in these galleries are some of the suitcases and trunks that people carried with them when they first came to America and the special personal items they brought, including 1920s beaded shoes from Syria, and a Palestinian thobe garment. Visitors can enter a kitchen recreation that displays items that have cultural significance for Arab Americans. Inside a refrigerator is hummus and rosewater and products made by Arab American-owned companies like Melody Farms dairy products. Nearby are ceramic pottery and glass tea cups.

Visitors can also listen to Arab musical instruments and celebrate the achievements of famous Arab Americans, such as "American Top 40" radio host Casey Kasem, journalist and White House correspondent Helen Thomas, consumer safety advocate 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 artistic practice by Arab artists who live and work in America, whether they are U.S. citizens or members of the Arab diaspora," AANM director Diana Abouali told the PBS NewsHour. "The works in our collection need to be seen within the larger context of American art produced in the 20th and 21st centuries, and as engaging with various movements and approaches that have defined modern and contemporary American art. Some of these artists have been overlooked and not incorporated into the narrative of American art."

One of AANM's first commissions, and currently on display, is "soft powers," the first solo museum exhibit from 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, on how the children of immigrants have to code switch between the collectivist ideals of their families' cultures and the individualist ones in 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. Video by AANM

Arab Americans have always been a part of the 'great American mosaic'

The museum is also a popular destination for school field trips and teacher trainings, from elementary to university levels. Museum tours and outreach programs also help students from Dearborn Public Schools and other neighboring school districts to meet across cultures, have positive dialogue, and learn about each other, said Hassane Jaafar, a retired principal and administrator for Dearborn Public Schools.

But the space is an especially important resource for Arab American youth to learn about their heritage and develop a sense of pride at a time when Arab Americans are often stereotyped and bullied.

"It's vital that our young generation grow up with the knowledge that they are an integral part of this great American mosaic and be proud of the fact that their ancestors have contributed extensively to the formation of our modern-day society," Jaafar said. This means recognizing the achievements of Arab Americans in the fields of medicine, education, car manufacturing, armed forces, law enforcement, journalism, philanthropy, and commerce, he added.

The museum also offers professional photography lessons to middle and high schoolers, a program that has been available to Metro Detroit youth since 2000. During the COVID-19 pandemic, classes went online. Photography lessons became an outlet for art therapy, as refugee and immigrant teens began documenting their lives at home. The museums made the teens' photos available to view online, as well as create an outward-facing exhibit that mounted some of the images in the museum's big, front windows facing Michigan Avenue so that the whole community could see.

Maha Abu Baker's photo, titled "inner beauty," which was featured in an online exhibit of Sura Art Academy students on the Arab American National Museum's 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 "communicate a story with no words."

"I use photography as a way of relaxation at stressful times," she wrote in her artist's statement for the photo exhibit.

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

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