The value of cultural museums: an Explorers retrospective of the conversation with the curators of the Arab American National Museum
Author: Tamsin Martin, student majoring in Modern History at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. This piece was written on Darug Land.
The complete video of this #ifphexplorers event is on our Vimeo Channel.
Museums that specialise in showcasing particular cultures and heritage are some of the most interesting and valuable ones around. The October 2022 Explorers event, an interview with Crystal McColl and Dave Serio, the curators of the Arab American National Museum, is a key example of this value. The Arab American National Museum was built to display the stories and artefacts of Arabic cultures and the peoples from these nations now living in the United States: their immigration, community building, and the impact they have made in the US.
David Serio first spoke about the context of the Arab American National Museum and the twenty two Arab Nations that it represents. Since the number of nations the museum seeks to represent is so large, he listed three unifying factors that denote status as an Arab nation: shared language, shared culture and history, and membership in the League of Arab States.
The museum prioritises accuracy and authenticity, diversity and representation, building community relationships, and relatability. In Serio’s words, the museum sets out to “insert the Arab American story, which is left out of the fabric of history,” into the historical narrative. They collect objects and stories from local members of Arab American communities in order to represent the human aspects of these diverse cultures. Serio emphasised how the museum presents the stories of migration to America through real people’s experiences. For Serio, humanising historical stories is vital to the way in which history is presented, as it allows for people to connect more strongly to larger themes through individual people. He also has noted how people are able to relate to the histories and objects through family names or connections, thus identifying community links and relationships.
Crystal McColl’s section of this presentation showed, in depth, the exact ways in which the museum connects with and displays Arab American culture through their collection and display themes of Contributions from the Arab World, Coming to America, Living in America, and Making an Impact. She spoke of how the museum collected the items on display from community donations and how the museum holds galleries, public, and educational programs and exhibits from artists in residence. The museum also has travelling exhibits and works with digital histories and oral histories. These methods allow for the museum to have direct conversations with people of Arab heritage and represent their history and culture in authentic and varied ways. Sourcing items directly from the community allows for this authenticity in showing how people experience their culture, which is really what a museum like this is about, at its core. Having multiple styles of exhibits and information delivery also allow for more varied interest and accessibility of information. These methods all link to the ethos of the museum, which is addressed by Serio. Historical accuracy and authenticity comes from the community: sourcing items, conducting oral histories to shape exhibits, hearing and seeing directly what the people being represented have experienced. The diversity and representation of the community also comes through the museum’s sourcing methods, as they have connections with representatives from all 22 Arab countries. Building relationships is inherent in displaying items from the community and allowing a space for conversation to grow around them. This is also important to the digital aspect of the museum, as it allows for a broader audience to see and connect with their community from afar.
Cultural museums are incredibly valuable, as they display an authentic look into a community created through a collaboration between museum professionals and members of that culture. They create a place where people can belong and feel represented. These spaces can also be incredibly helpful for people outside of the community they represent as they provide a space for education and immersion, allowing for people to learn aspects of a history that is not their own and see how other cultures experience life.
Tamsin Martin is in her final year of Bachelor of Arts, majoring in Modern History at Macquarie University. Her plan after graduation is to continue onto higher level study, focusing on researching the gay rights movement of the 1970s, and to enter museum and research work.
Cite this blog post
Bridging Editor (2023, July 3). The value of cultural museums: an Explorers retrospective of the conversation with the curators of the Arab American National Museum. IFPH-FIHP. Retrieved March 2, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/pvqp