Little Syria, NY at the Ellis Island Museum of Immigration

On October 1, 2016, the Arab American National Museum proudly opened the exhibition Little Syria, NY: An Immigrant Community’s Life & Legacy at our nation’s most storied institution on immigration, the Ellis Island Museum of Immigration. This exhibition presents the rich history of the earliest concentrated Arab immigrant community in the USA, placing the Arab American experience in context with the greater American immigrant narrative. I cannot think of a better time, or a better location, for this exhibition.

Nothing tells the “American story” like Ellis Island, and nothing tells the Arab immigrant story like Little Syria. At the time the Little Syria neighborhood was thriving in New York, “Greater Syria” itself consisted of modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine – and newly arrived Arab immigrants to New York exemplified this diversity. Choosing to exhibit Little Syria, NY in New York City, on the island where so many Arab immigrants first stepped foot on American soil, demonstrates a commitment and appreciation to our rich and contributory heritage.

At the same time, this exhibit embraces the American values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness despite one’s place of origin, beliefs, race or reasons for making the courageous decision to embark on a new journey and way of life.

This exhibition would not have been possible without the generous support of Arab Americans from across our nation. Many served as advisors, object donors, and financial donors. We are most grateful for their unwavering support.

Little Syria, NY will be on display through January 9, 2016. Over the course of the next three months, we anticipate over 300,000 visitors to the exhibit. We hope you will get a chance to visit.

For more on the exhibit, check out this wonderful article written by Associated Press journalist Jeff Karoub.

Through documents, artifacts and photos, the exhibition tells the story of a Middle Eastern community that once flourished in Lower Manhattan. The show is on view through Jan. 9 in the building where some 12 million immigrants from around the world first set foot in America. And it documents the vanished neighborhood of Little Syria in ways that still resonate, at a time when Syrian refugees and immigrant rights are making headlines.

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Upcoming Speaking Engagements: Week of October 17, 2016

Next week I’m heading to Washington, D.C for a couple of professional engagements. First up is the Smithsonian Affiliations Annual Conference. The conference runs from Monday, October 17 through Thursday, October 20. This year marks the 20th anniversary of Smithsonian Affiliations and our colleagues in Washington have put together an excellent conference schedule. I’m looking forward to reconnecting with colleagues, exchanging ideas, and learning fresh insights. Check out the conference agenda.

My responsibilities at the annual conference are twofold. First, I’ve had the pleasure of serving on the Smithsonian Affiliations Advisory Council for the past three years. On Monday, we will convene for our annual meeting. I’m very much looking forward to learning more about the developments with the Affiliates program, as well as doing my best to provide effect feedback. Additionally, on Tuesday at 9:30am, I have the pleasure of participating on a keynote panel entitled, Opening Session: Saluting our Past, Shaping our Future. During this time we’ll be sharing our work and experiences as part of the Affiliate network, while also exploring opportunities for future collaboration. If you can join us, swing by the Rasmuson Theater at the National Museum of the American Indian. Here’s a peek at what I’ll be discussing.

On Wednesday, October 19, I have the pleasure of serving on a panel presented by the Middle East Institute and the Institute for Immigration Research (IIR) at George Mason University. The panel, entitled The Art of Immigration: How Immigrant Artists Enrich America, also includes Huda Asfour (Musician & Composer), Anne-Marie McGranghan (UNHCR), and James Witte (George Mason University). Our discussion will explore the “social, cultural, and economic impact of immigrant artists on U.S. society, the infrastructure available to support the integration of immigrant artists, and the personal transformations they undergo as they adapt to their new homeland.” Details on the panel, including info on registration, can be found here.

Hopefully I’ll see you in D.C.!

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Museums and Libraries As Community Catalysts

How do museums and libraries catalyze communities? More specifically, how do they serve as “enablers of community vitality and co-creators of positive community change?” These are fundamental questions the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) is asking as part of the Community Catalyst Initiative. IMLS launched the initiative, in partnership with the William Penn Foundation and the Reinvestment Fund, in July 2016. On September 8–9, IMLS hosted around 70 museum and library professionals for a two-day Community Catalysts Town Hall in Philadelphia. The program invited attendees to reflect on how cultural institutions respond to challenges in their community, and how they work to improve the well-being of residents and the community at large.

Many topics were explored during the convening, including types of community well-being (e.g. economic, social connection, ethnic diversity), types of collaborations (leading vs. contributing vs. facilitating), and ways in which institutions understand the various needs of the communities they represent. However, what most piqued my interest was a discussion on institutional mindset; the philosophical underpinnings that make certain institutions better at implementing this type of community-based work.

It was mentioned repeatedly that museums and libraries are often perceived as trusted and neutral institutions. On one hand, trust in the foundation of all relationships. Trust between a cultural institution and its constituents is core to effective collaboration, especially those seeking to benefit a community. However, on the other hand, I question how an institution can truly catalyze a community if its intent on remaining neutral. To catalyze requires action and neutrality, by definition, affords inaction.

If cultural institutions are to become more effective catalysts, then staff must work to be more rooted in, and responsive to, the communities they serve. This is tough work. It requires working beyond the standard hours of operation. It requires knowing the needs of the community and how institutional assets can be leveraged to address the various needs. It requires continuous learning and improvement through both iterative and incremental approaches to program delivery.

I believe that our friends at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle best articulate what is required to be successful through their institutional values:

People give us meaning and purpose.
Relationships are our foundation.
We desire community empowerment and ownership.

To do this, we have found the following:

The work is labor intensive.
The work requires flexibility.
We willingly relinquish control.

This is an incredibly bold philosophy for a cultural institution. It shifts the institutional mindset, disrupting traditional power imbalances, and is both empowering and responsive. It roots community at the center of the institution’s work. I wonder how more traditional cultural institutions can adapt to incorporate such an approach; one that is connected with community and reciprocating in terms of benefits.

Cultural institutions that seek to become greater catalysts could learn a lot from community organizers. In many ways, becoming a catalysts requires a community building mindset. We should learn from the grassroots approaches of these organizers to further our work.

I’m optimistic about the direction museums and libraries are heading. And, I’m grateful that funding agencies like the IMLS are pushing the field to think about the evolving positions of cultural institutions in their respective communities. I look forward to seeing what emerges from the Community Catalysts Initiative and I encourage IMLS to put forth greater resources to enable cultural institutions to explore this approach to their work.

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Featured in Hour Detroit Magazine

The Arab American National Museum was featured in the June 2015 edition of Hour Detroit. There’s a nice article on the museum’s tenth anniversary.

Creating Conversations: For 10 years, Dearborn’s Arab American National Museum has been telling the community’s unique stories

“It makes you optimistic about the future for this institution, no matter who is here,” Akmon says. “It’s our goal to continue to contribute and to continue to mold it to that next shape.”

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AANM featured in Hour Detroit
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2015 Arab Film Festival + Cinetopia

The Arab American National Museum is excited to be presenting the 2015 Arab Film Festival as part of the award-winning Cinetopia International Film Festival. That’s right, a film festival within a film festival. We’re awfully creative. The 2015 Arab Film Festival is also an important program within the Arab American National Museum’s tenth anniversary year programming schedule.

Cinetopia began on June 5 at the Detroit Institute of Arts in Detroit. We were pleased that one of our Arab Film Festival features served to kick off the festival program. That film was Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. Produced by Selma Hayek and featuring top talent such as Liam Neeson, this major film premiered at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. Our screening in Detroit is one of the first public screenings in the US. In fact, the opening night screening took place on the north lawn of the Detroit Institute of Arts. This animated film will have its official US debut in August. In addition to the screening at the DIA, we will also showing The Prophet in the Museum’s new Annex and at the historic Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor.

In sum, there are eight films as part of the Arab Film Festival. Other titles include the award-winning Wadjda – the first feature film from a female in Saudi Arabia – and Cherien Dabis’ May in the Summer.

There are five days left in the festival. Score yourself some tickets!

2015 Arab Film Festival Schedule
2015 Arab Film Festival Schedule

Extended media coverage:

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Maker: DIY Carbonation Rig

A thing of beauty. Forget the Soda Stream, this DIY carbonation rig is easy to make and it’s perfect for gassing up some bubbly. We build this rig in about an hour, which was mainly time spent purchasing the gear at our local homebrew supplies store. Check out the instructions.

An image of a Maker: DIY Carbonation Rig
Maker: DIY Carbonation Rig
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