More than 50,000 have visited the in Dearborn each year since its opening in 2005. But while the museum was conceived of much earlier, Deputy Director Devon Akmon says there was some anxiousness on the part of the founders as to what role the museum would play in the community after Sept. 11, 2001.
“There was anxiety within the community," he says. "To put yourself out there, to share your story at a time when there was criticism of where your money was going and what it was supporting … it took a lot of trust.”
And for Dearborn nonprofit ACCESS, the umbrella organization that dreamed of and built the one-of-a-kind museum, there was anxiety in not knowing how the community–and the world at large–would react to a space where the sole purpose was to celebrate, honor, and tell the stories of Arab-Americans.
"There was a lot of apprehension–how are people going to react to this? Will people support it?" Akmon, who has been with the museum since its opening, explains. "Obviously, there was enough support in that we ended up building the museum, but (9/11) was a massive challenge that presented itself, which was never in the plans. It gave us quite a hurdle to overcome."
But it also strengthened the reasons why the museum was necessary: to debunk rampant stereotypes. To teach Arab-Americans–especially youth–about their ancestry. To weave the Arab immigrant story into the greater fabric of American history.
The last of those three goals, Akmon said, is especially crucial in that it shows that Arab-American stories are not all that unlike the histories of other ethnic groups.
"We’re doing a lot to document the Arab-American story–to bring forth the story and to celebrate it," Akmon says. "But it can’t happen in isolation of what’s happening around us. We’re always looking for ways to bridge our story with other communities, other stories."
The museum, like any other, is made up of permanent and traveling exhibits, punctuated by special events, performances, classes and tours. Exhibits focus on heritage, the immigrant story, living in America and the impact Arab-Americans have made on the world. Events range from panel discussions on foreign conflicts to music and dance performances from every culture.
Exploring stereotypes, the impact of 9/11 and the changing face of Arab America have, of course, been recurring themes.
The content of the museum is diverse because the visitors are as well–from frequent school field trips to workplace cultural competency trainings to out-of-towners just looking to add a little learning to their trip.
"We want to educate our own community and build a sense of pride," Akmon explains. "And to those who aren’t Arab-American, we want to educate them on what the Arab-American story is in a way where they can see that the story is very similar, because we have a similar history as to why people came to this country to start a new life."
And the "silver lining" to a tragedy like 9/11, Akmon adds, is that it created an atmosphere where many people wanted to learn instead of blindly hate. Who are Arab-Americans? What does it mean to be Muslim? How do they fit into our country's patchwork?
"These aren’t only Arab stories," Akmon says of the museum's content. "They are Polish stories. They are German stories. They’re very much American stories. If we can present the Arab-American slice of that and put it in context, we think a lot of people would say, ‘Now they’re not so foreign anymore, these Arab-Americans. They’re all like me.’"
The Arab American National Museum will be open on Sunday, Sept. 11, from 12-5 p.m. Admission is free to all. To learn more about the museum, visit their website.