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Telling Our Own Story: The Complexity of Arab American Identity Representation
The rise of ethnic museums over the last few decades mimics the rise in ethnic studies, as ethnic groups have not only claimed their existence within mainstream institutions but have created their own. This rise in ethnic museums is also pivotal in the changing perspective of what museums are or are not. Historically, museums were founded, for the most part, to house expensive artifacts and collections of royalty and nobility or to house historical antiquities (most of the time stolen from colonies). Ethnic museums, however, were mostly founded by community members to tell their own story. Through exhibits and public programming, these institutions preserve their history and collective memories as well as generate public awareness about their experiences. Using narratives of ordinary people to connect with visitors on a personal level, ethnic museums transform the relationship between the institution and the community it claims to represent. In this role, ethnic museums complement and support ethnic studies. As Arab American continue building their own scholarly voice, the Arab American National Museum (AANM) mediates between scholars and community members in ways that give ordinary people the space to tell their own stories.
This presentation will explore how ethnic museums can foster scholar/community collaborations, particularly in the area of interactive exhibits. Using examples from the Arab American National Museum I will show how ethnic museums can combine scholarly work and the individual narratives of community members into exhibits that animate these experiences and make the information accessible to a wide audience. Using the power of multimedia technologies and the web, exhibits can allow visitors to contribute their own stories, thus adding another dimension to the scholar/community collaboration. For example, the AANM's online exhibit Reclaiming Identity: Dismantling Arab Stereotypes (2011) was created with collaboration from ethnic studies scholars and community members and attempts to translate a complex topic, stereotyping, into a series of community-driven histories that are accessible to the public. The AANM permanent exhibit was the outcome of tens of focus groups around the country with diverse Arab American communities to find common themes that the community felt the Museum should reflect. Of course, the ethnic museum must mediate its multiple communities (for no community has a single perspective) as well as its multiple audiences. The AANM has balanced being a community repository, a space for public representation, and a site for scholarly conversation about the many issues that affect the community. Where ethnic studies can comfortably claim the academy as its home base, ethnic museums are in many ways more public, which is both an enviable position and a volatile one.
Anan Ameri holds a PhD in sociology from Wayne State University and is the Director of the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. It is the only museum in the United States dedicated to telling the story of Arab Americans. Dr. Ameri is a Palestinian American who emigrated to the U.S. from Amman, Jordan. She is a widely respected sociologist, scholar and author on Arab and Arab-American arts and humanities programs with several publications to her credit, including The Arab American Encyclopedia (2000) and Telling Our Story: The Arab American National Museum (2007). She is also a contributing author and co-editor of Daily Life of Arab Americans (2012). Among the many honors she has received are the Detroit News 2005 Michiganian of the Year and the Arab American Business of the Year Award.
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