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Taking on Hate at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan

“From America to Zanzibar: Muslim Cultures Near and Far”

A young visitor plays in an interactive display of a colorful Pakistani truck at the exhibition "From America to Zanzibar" at the Children's Museum of Manhattan (photo credit: Huma Mohibullah).

Huma Mohibullah


Sixteen years after the 9/11 attacks, anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States shows no signs of waning. While the Trump administration maintains hardline approaches in dealing with national security issues, Muslims continue to be imagined as a group of medieval fanatics and high-risk individuals.1 Children, too, are affected by such political discourse; as a 2017 study showed, 42% of American Muslim school children reported being subjected to bullying by their peers, and even by their teachers.2

It is in this context of insecurity and xenophobia that the Children’s Museum of Manhattan designed its exhibition, “From America to Zanzibar: Muslim Cultures Near and Far.” The exhibition is part of its ongoing Global Cultural Exhibits and Programs series, designed to help children learn about themselves while learning about others. “From America to Zanzibar” aims to counter the one-dimensional and prejudiced way in which Muslims are often pictured, and to instead portray their rich diversity around the world as well as right here in the United States.

This goal is apparent from the outset, as the exhibition entrance is marked with a plaque informing visitors that “America is home of one of the most diverse populations of Muslims in the world.” Further challenging the perception that Muslims are dangerous outsiders to the United States, it continues, “Since the 1600s, Muslims have enriched the fabric of American society by sharing traditions and cultures that span the globe.”

To see how a child might interact with the exhibition, I brought my four-year-old nephew to tour it, guided by Senior Exhibit Development Consultant Ellen Bari. Bari explained the importance of providing children with immersive experiences, and introducing them to a faith group that is sure to include their classmates and neighbors in New York City. “How do you explain to children what a Muslim is? Or what Islam is?” I asked her. “You don’t,” she said. “You simply expose them to the idea and let them learn through play and pretend.”

Indeed, beyond the introductory statement that “A Muslim is someone who follows the religion of Islam…”, the exhibit is not concerned with defining who or what counts as a Muslim. This is wholly appropriate for a project seeking to complicate a group too often rendered to stereotypes.

Mural of three mosques, from China, Morocco, and Michigan (photo credit: Hussein Rashid).

Upon entry, we are greeted with an enormous mural of three real-life mosques: one located in China, one in Morocco, and finally, one that looks like it belongs in the Middle East or South Asia, but is in fact in Michigan. As one stares upward at the American mosque, it becomes clear that what may have seemed strange or foreign at first is in fact familiar and close to home.

To the right of the entrance, a model of a Pakistani truck stands against the backdrop of the Himalayas. In real life, these vehicles are known for the intricate and colorful designs with which they are covered; for being “moving works of art,” as Bari called them. Apart from being able to “drive” the truck, children are also drawn in by the chance to decorate it with magnetic tiles.

The young visitors I observed seemed unable to resist the many opportunities for interaction throughout the exhibit. Behind the mural is a room in which they can navigate mosques around the world in 360 degrees. The technology involves a touchscreen device similar to an iPad, displaying a globe with several location pins on it. My nephew was easily able to select a spot in the world and have a massive image of a mosque from that particular location fill the room. One moment we were in Turkey, and the next, in Saudi Arabia. He and another child became engrossed in the activity together, dragging their little fingers up, down, and across the touchscreen to shift an entire mosque’s orientation as they wished. Dragging down allowed us to gaze upward at breathtaking ceiling designs, while dragging up made us feel as though we were standing with prayer rugs at our feet. The children were in a state of intense concentration while their guardians—myself included—stood equally immersed in quiet awe.

A young visitor enjoys an interactive display about musical instruments of the Islamic world (photo credit: Huma Mohibullah).

In the opposite corner of the same room is an artist’s station where children can create their own mosques by using various combinations of minarets, domes, and other structures. Outside, in the main area, they can take turns exploring traditional musical instruments from a variety of countries, combining sounds that are normally disparate to create beautiful harmonies.

Also in the main area stands the installation most popular with children: the Indian dhow, a traditional sailing vessel used by traders to ship spices and other goods. Young boys and girls race toward the life-sized hull, eager to use the pulley system, which allows them to send plastic fruits and vegetables to friends waiting below.

Such interactive materials have the potential to leave their mark on one’s memory and have a lasting impact. Passing childhood experiences can stick and form impressions that inform our worldview in adulthood, Bari explained. “[As an adult] you might see or hear something about a Muslim culture that sounds familiar, and think, ‘Oh, I know what that is! When I was a kid, I played with [for example] an Indian dhow.’”

The marketplace section of the exhibit, which features shops from various Muslim cultures, continues the immersive experience. In Zanzibar, my nephew played fishmonger by using magnetic poles to catch wooden prey to “sell” later; in Turkey, he window shopped for ceramic plates; in Egypt, he sniffed local spices in the bazaar; in Morocco, he lay down on patterned rugs for a momentary rest. While the market seems to recreate distant places, at least one scene is inspired by a vendor located just up the street. The Senegalese cloth market replicates one in Harlem, and like the large mural of the Michigan mosque, it too blurs the lines between the exotic and familiar, between faraway and home.

(L) Young visitors explore a 360-degree virtual display of a mosque interior. (R) A young visitor practices his fishing skills, preparing for a potential career as a fishmonger in Zanzibar (photo credit: Huma Mohibullah).

It is important to note that many of the artifacts displayed in the Museum’s markets are acquired directly from their real-life locations. For instance, the Senegalese styles featured are personally made by the fashion designer who runs the real-life store in Harlem; each symbol on the Moroccan rugs is woven in by locals in Morocco; the spices included in the Egyptian market were recommended by the shopkeeper who is pictured in the installation. Not only does this support Muslims in various countries around the world, it resists “othering” them and reducing them to their “exotic” material culture. Instead, it lets visitors feel a connection with the actual people whose handiwork they see, touch, and even smell.

While the exhibition is obviously geared toward children, there are also informative pieces from which adult visitors may benefit. At a time when Muslims are commonly thought of as backward, the exhibit made it a point to highlight their contributions to modern civilization. For instance, a sign next to the dhow explains that

Scientific exploration has always been highly valued in Muslim cultures… Astronomy helped navigators find their way whether they were traveling on the open seas or in the desert. Early Muslim scientists developed many tools for navigation that are still valued today.

One of the most significant plaques on display is a chart of Muslim prayer spaces throughout the city’s five boroughs, showing how woven into the city Muslims are. It features prominent mosques, such as the Malcolm Shabazz Mosque in Harlem, as well as mundane spaces turned sacred, such as a Mobil gas station. Their varying locations and congregations, as well as stark differences in their architecture, once again points to the fact that American Muslims are anything but homogenous.

Other informative pieces that appeal to both children and adults include fine art by Muslims and a profile of Egyptian performing artist Basil El Halwagy. Artists such as El Halwagy have also entertained visitors at the Museum, for as Bari told me, what the Museum cannot cover through exhibitry, it does through performances. The exhibits alone are enough to warrant several visits, for not only do they present a lot of information for adults, children seem to not want to leave the unique, educational play space.

Shelves displaying personal belongings of Muslim Americans (photo credit: Hussein Rashid).

While the dhow was clearly my nephew’s favorite item, from an adult perspective, perhaps the most powerful installation is the one focused on Muslim homes in the United States. It consists of several shelves, each one displaying everyday objects from the lives of ordinary Muslims of various cultural backgrounds and religious persuasions. For instance, one shelf displays items from the home of Hussein Rashid, a scholar of religion, whose collection of books on Islam is presented side-by-side with collectibles from The Simpsons. Another shelf is centered around a 1980s photograph of a young Latino man standing in front of the Alianza Islamica.3 The photo is surrounded by an Alianza t-shirt, Latinx Muslim artwork, and a Spanish-language Qurʾān, among other things. Still another shelf displays a pair of adult-sized short shorts juxtaposed with child-sized traditional garb. This particular donor wanted to give voice to her experience as a bi-cultural Muslim woman who was raised to wear traditional dress, but often wore shorts underneath her clothes so that she could change into them quickly upon leaving her parents’ house. Each display is accompanied by a short audio narrative provided by its donor. Their voices lend significance to these objects, and once again shed light on the diversity of American Muslim backgrounds and experiences.

Bari shared that the Museum’s staff gets “tremendous satisfaction” from the exhibit and its effort to counter years of anti-Muslim hysteria. She said that while they had expected some pushback after the exhibit opened, it never quite happened. Indeed, when I tried to seek out detractors, I found only insignificant blogs complaining that the exhibit was pro-Muslim propaganda because it did not emphasize Christian cultures as well. Instead of any major controversy, the Museum has seen an uptick in visitors. More Muslims than ever now visit the space, including celebrities like DJ Khaled, whose presence further promotes the exhibition among both Muslims and non-Muslims.4 In fact, it is so well regarded that it will begin a national tour at the end of the year. Its first stop: the Creative Discovery Museum in Chattanooga, Tennessee, after which it will travel to the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky.

Interactive display that allows visitors to hear the music of Muslim-American recording artists (photo credit: Huma Mohibullah).

 

Certainly, the exhibit has won this Muslim’s approval. It was a moving experience to watch my nephew learn more about his heritage alongside Muslim and non-Muslim children his age. It was wonderful to watch him attempt writing in his mother tongue, Urdu; listen to the stories of other American Muslims; and discover the music of Muslim artists like Black Star, Yuna, and A Tribe Called Quest.

On our way out, he posed in the Museum’s miniature model of the Oval Office, in which countless Muslim children have now imagined being President—a fitting end to an exhibit intended to challenge the sort of anti-Muslim anxieties that continue to be peddled from the nation’s highest office.

 

CORRECTION: this essay was originally published with two small inaccuracies regarding CMOM staff and the “From America to Zanzibar” exhibition. We apologize for these inadvertent errors.

 

HUMA MOHIBULLAH is an anthropologist whose research focuses on how ongoing legacies of the 9/11 attacks affect the senses of self and place of Muslim New Yorkers, as well as the role of Islam in the lives of Muslims who have been incarcerated in the War on Terror.

 

  1. See Cody Watsy, “We’re Challenging Muslim Ban 3.0, Which Is Just More of the Same,” www.aclu.org.
  2. See “American Muslim Poll 2017,” www.ispu.org.
  3. See “Alianza Islámica: Islam in the Barrio,” Latino USA, www.npr.org.
  4. Allison P. Davis, “Touring the Children’s Museum with Asahd Khaled, the Busiest Baby in Hip-Hop,” The Cut, September 4, 2017.

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Taking on Hate at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan

“From America to Zanzibar: Muslim Cultures Near and Far”


Huma Mohibullah


Sixteen years after the 9/11 attacks, anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States shows no signs of waning. While the Trump administration maintains hardline approaches in dealing with national security issues, Muslims continue to be imagined as a group of medieval fanatics and high-risk individuals.1 Children, too, are affected by such political discourse; as a 2017 study showed, 42% of American Muslim school children reported being subjected to bullying by their peers, and even by their teachers.2

It is in this context of insecurity and xenophobia that the Children’s Museum of Manhattan designed its exhibition, “From America to Zanzibar: Muslim Cultures Near and Far.” The exhibition is part of its ongoing Global Cultural Exhibits and Programs series, designed to help children learn about themselves while learning about others. “From America to Zanzibar” aims to counter the one-dimensional and prejudiced way in which Muslims are often pictured, and to instead portray their rich diversity around the world as well as right here in the United States.

This goal is apparent from the outset, as the exhibition entrance is marked with a plaque informing visitors that “America is home of one of the most diverse populations of Muslims in the world.” Further challenging the perception that Muslims are dangerous outsiders to the United States, it continues, “Since the 1600s, Muslims have enriched the fabric of American society by sharing traditions and cultures that span the globe.”

To see how a child might interact with the exhibition, I brought my four-year-old nephew to tour it, guided by Senior Exhibit Development Consultant Ellen Bari. Bari explained the importance of providing children with immersive experiences, and introducing them to a faith group that is sure to include their classmates and neighbors in New York City. “How do you explain to children what a Muslim is? Or what Islam is?” I asked her. “You don’t,” she said. “You simply expose them to the idea and let them learn through play and pretend.”

Indeed, beyond the introductory statement that “A Muslim is someone who follows the religion of Islam…”, the exhibit is not concerned with defining who or what counts as a Muslim. This is wholly appropriate for a project seeking to complicate a group too often rendered to stereotypes.

Mural of three mosques, from China, Morocco, and Michigan (photo credit: Hussein Rashid).

Upon entry, we are greeted with an enormous mural of three real-life mosques: one located in China, one in Morocco, and finally, one that looks like it belongs in the Middle East or South Asia, but is in fact in Michigan. As one stares upward at the American mosque, it becomes clear that what may have seemed strange or foreign at first is in fact familiar and close to home.

To the right of the entrance, a model of a Pakistani truck stands against the backdrop of the Himalayas. In real life, these vehicles are known for the intricate and colorful designs with which they are covered; for being “moving works of art,” as Bari called them. Apart from being able to “drive” the truck, children are also drawn in by the chance to decorate it with magnetic tiles.

The young visitors I observed seemed unable to resist the many opportunities for interaction throughout the exhibit. Behind the mural is a room in which they can navigate mosques around the world in 360 degrees. The technology involves a touchscreen device similar to an iPad, displaying a globe with several location pins on it. My nephew was easily able to select a spot in the world and have a massive image of a mosque from that particular location fill the room. One moment we were in Turkey, and the next, in Saudi Arabia. He and another child became engrossed in the activity together, dragging their little fingers up, down, and across the touchscreen to shift an entire mosque’s orientation as they wished. Dragging down allowed us to gaze upward at breathtaking ceiling designs, while dragging up made us feel as though we were standing with prayer rugs at our feet. The children were in a state of intense concentration while their guardians—myself included—stood equally immersed in quiet awe.

A young visitor enjoys an interactive display about musical instruments of the Islamic world (photo credit: Huma Mohibullah).

In the opposite corner of the same room is an artist’s station where children can create their own mosques by using various combinations of minarets, domes, and other structures. Outside, in the main area, they can take turns exploring traditional musical instruments from a variety of countries, combining sounds that are normally disparate to create beautiful harmonies.

Also in the main area stands the installation most popular with children: the Indian dhow, a traditional sailing vessel used by traders to ship spices and other goods. Young boys and girls race toward the life-sized hull, eager to use the pulley system, which allows them to send plastic fruits and vegetables to friends waiting below.

Such interactive materials have the potential to leave their mark on one’s memory and have a lasting impact. Passing childhood experiences can stick and form impressions that inform our worldview in adulthood, Bari explained. “[As an adult] you might see or hear something about a Muslim culture that sounds familiar, and think, ‘Oh, I know what that is! When I was a kid, I played with [for example] an Indian dhow.’”

The marketplace section of the exhibit, which features shops from various Muslim cultures, continues the immersive experience. In Zanzibar, my nephew played fishmonger by using magnetic poles to catch wooden prey to “sell” later; in Turkey, he window shopped for ceramic plates; in Egypt, he sniffed local spices in the bazaar; in Morocco, he lay down on patterned rugs for a momentary rest. While the market seems to recreate distant places, at least one scene is inspired by a vendor located just up the street. The Senegalese cloth market replicates one in Harlem, and like the large mural of the Michigan mosque, it too blurs the lines between the exotic and familiar, between faraway and home.

(L) Young visitors explore a 360-degree virtual display of a mosque interior. (R) A young visitor practices his fishing skills, preparing for a potential career as a fishmonger in Zanzibar (photo credit: Huma Mohibullah).

It is important to note that many of the artifacts displayed in the Museum’s markets are acquired directly from their real-life locations. For instance, the Senegalese styles featured are personally made by the fashion designer who runs the real-life store in Harlem; each symbol on the Moroccan rugs is woven in by locals in Morocco; the spices included in the Egyptian market were recommended by the shopkeeper who is pictured in the installation. Not only does this support Muslims in various countries around the world, it resists “othering” them and reducing them to their “exotic” material culture. Instead, it lets visitors feel a connection with the actual people whose handiwork they see, touch, and even smell.

While the exhibition is obviously geared toward children, there are also informative pieces from which adult visitors may benefit. At a time when Muslims are commonly thought of as backward, the exhibit made it a point to highlight their contributions to modern civilization. For instance, a sign next to the dhow explains that

Scientific exploration has always been highly valued in Muslim cultures… Astronomy helped navigators find their way whether they were traveling on the open seas or in the desert. Early Muslim scientists developed many tools for navigation that are still valued today.

One of the most significant plaques on display is a chart of Muslim prayer spaces throughout the city’s five boroughs, showing how woven into the city Muslims are. It features prominent mosques, such as the Malcolm Shabazz Mosque in Harlem, as well as mundane spaces turned sacred, such as a Mobil gas station. Their varying locations and congregations, as well as stark differences in their architecture, once again points to the fact that American Muslims are anything but homogenous.

Other informative pieces that appeal to both children and adults include fine art by Muslims and a profile of Egyptian performing artist Basil El Halwagy. Artists such as El Halwagy have also entertained visitors at the Museum, for as Bari told me, what the Museum cannot cover through exhibitry, it does through performances. The exhibits alone are enough to warrant several visits, for not only do they present a lot of information for adults, children seem to not want to leave the unique, educational play space.

Shelves displaying personal belongings of Muslim Americans (photo credit: Hussein Rashid).

While the dhow was clearly my nephew’s favorite item, from an adult perspective, perhaps the most powerful installation is the one focused on Muslim homes in the United States. It consists of several shelves, each one displaying everyday objects from the lives of ordinary Muslims of various cultural backgrounds and religious persuasions. For instance, one shelf displays items from the home of Hussein Rashid, a scholar of religion, whose collection of books on Islam is presented side-by-side with collectibles from The Simpsons. Another shelf is centered around a 1980s photograph of a young Latino man standing in front of the Alianza Islamica.3 The photo is surrounded by an Alianza t-shirt, Latinx Muslim artwork, and a Spanish-language Qurʾān, among other things. Still another shelf displays a pair of adult-sized short shorts juxtaposed with child-sized traditional garb. This particular donor wanted to give voice to her experience as a bi-cultural Muslim woman who was raised to wear traditional dress, but often wore shorts underneath her clothes so that she could change into them quickly upon leaving her parents’ house. Each display is accompanied by a short audio narrative provided by its donor. Their voices lend significance to these objects, and once again shed light on the diversity of American Muslim backgrounds and experiences.

Bari shared that the Museum’s staff gets “tremendous satisfaction” from the exhibit and its effort to counter years of anti-Muslim hysteria. She said that while they had expected some pushback after the exhibit opened, it never quite happened. Indeed, when I tried to seek out detractors, I found only insignificant blogs complaining that the exhibit was pro-Muslim propaganda because it did not emphasize Christian cultures as well. Instead of any major controversy, the Museum has seen an uptick in visitors. More Muslims than ever now visit the space, including celebrities like DJ Khaled, whose presence further promotes the exhibition among both Muslims and non-Muslims.4 In fact, it is so well regarded that it will begin a national tour at the end of the year. Its first stop: the Creative Discovery Museum in Chattanooga, Tennessee, after which it will travel to the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Kentucky.

Interactive display that allows visitors to hear the music of Muslim-American recording artists (photo credit: Huma Mohibullah).

 

Certainly, the exhibit has won this Muslim’s approval. It was a moving experience to watch my nephew learn more about his heritage alongside Muslim and non-Muslim children his age. It was wonderful to watch him attempt writing in his mother tongue, Urdu; listen to the stories of other American Muslims; and discover the music of Muslim artists like Black Star, Yuna, and A Tribe Called Quest.

On our way out, he posed in the Museum’s miniature model of the Oval Office, in which countless Muslim children have now imagined being President—a fitting end to an exhibit intended to challenge the sort of anti-Muslim anxieties that continue to be peddled from the nation’s highest office.

 

CORRECTION: this essay was originally published with two small inaccuracies regarding CMOM staff and the “From America to Zanzibar” exhibition. We apologize for these inadvertent errors.

 

HUMA MOHIBULLAH is an anthropologist whose research focuses on how ongoing legacies of the 9/11 attacks affect the senses of self and place of Muslim New Yorkers, as well as the role of Islam in the lives of Muslims who have been incarcerated in the War on Terror.

 

  1. See Cody Watsy, “We’re Challenging Muslim Ban 3.0, Which Is Just More of the Same,” www.aclu.org.
  2. See “American Muslim Poll 2017,” www.ispu.org.
  3. See “Alianza Islámica: Islam in the Barrio,” Latino USA, www.npr.org.
  4. Allison P. Davis, “Touring the Children’s Museum with Asahd Khaled, the Busiest Baby in Hip-Hop,” The Cut, September 4, 2017.

Taking on Hate at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan

“From America to Zanzibar: Muslim Cultures Near and Far”

Taking on Hate at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan

“From America to Zanzibar: Muslim Cultures Near and Far”