A Children’s Museum ‘Surprise Blockbuster’: A Show on Islam
By JANET MORRISSEY
This article was originally published on The New York Times.
As terrorism fears have mounted and tensions have escalated toward Muslims in the United States in recent years, the Children’s Museum of Manhattan is doing its part to help defuse the rising anxiety. Its exhibition “America to Zanzibar: Muslim Cultures Near and Far” showcases the history, art and traditions of Muslims, with the belief that education will beat back ignorance and hate every time.
“People really want to dig in and get a better understanding from a trusted source about Muslim cultures,” said Andrew S. Ackerman, the museum’s executive director. And the earlier people are exposed to diverse cultures, the better, he said.
“Biases can form by age 6,” noted Lizzy Martin, the show’s curator.
Mr. Ackerman said, “We want young children to be exposed to as much diversity as possible to better understand other people and themselves, and there’s no question that reduces prejudice, violence and misunderstandings.”
The show has been so popular since its opening in February 2016 that its run has been extended another year, and plans are underway to take it on a nationwide tour in 2018.
“I’ve been here 26 years and I can’t remember another exhibit that had a sustained heavy attendance over a period of a year like this one has,” said Mr. Ackerman, noting that more than 350,000 people have visited. “It’s been a surprise blockbuster for us.” He said he knows of only a handful of detractors asking why the museum wasn’t showing Christian cultures instead.
The institution, tucked between brownstones and apartment buildings on the Upper West Side, has allotted the exhibition 3,000 square feet on its ground floor.
The show is divided into five areas, where a combination of ancient artifacts, art displays, music and hands-on props take young people on a journey through Muslim cultures in more than 50 countries, from ancient history to the present. Many are interactive, giving children a fun and memorable way to experience these lifestyles.
In the architecture section, for example, a room with a large, curved screen offers a 3-D-like tour of 25 mosques around the globe.
There’s also a simulated courtyard, where local artists have recorded sounds from Middle Eastern instruments like the ney, the oud, the rebana, the tabla, the ghijak and the kora. Visitors can press buttons to hear each instrument and create their own harmonies.
Glass cases are filled with ancient artifacts, like a 700-year-old Egyptian candlestick, as well as contemporary Turkish ceramics and brass bowls — each with its own story written next to it.
The global marketplace area features samples of colorful fabrics, tiles and rugs from such countries as Iran; Egypt; Pakistan; and Spain, which has a large Muslim population — and explanations of their various symbols and designs.
It also highlights exotic Egyptian spices and fruits, where pushing buttons releases their fragrances. One fruit, the durian, emits such a putrid smell that it has been banned in some hotels, the display says.
In a section devoted to the American home, members of local Muslim families tell their personal stories and showcase possessions like copies of the Quran, hijabs (head scarves) and tasbih (prayer beads). One woman contributed a pair of denim shorts, saying she was forbidden to wear these in public as a teenager, so she secretly wore them under her abaya (a robe).
Elsewhere, children can climb onto a model of a multilevel dhou, a boat used to transport goods. They can decorate a small version of a Pakistani truck or sit atop a fiberglass Egyptian camel.
“Children can pretend to be a salesman, wrap themselves in Senegalese fabrics, smell spices, roll a rug or pretend to fish in Zanzibar,” Ms. Martin said. “Hands-on is how children learn.”
More than six years of planning and research went into designing the show and rounding up all the artifacts, artwork, murals and props. The museum consulted hundreds of people, including Muslims from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut; consulates; scholars; and mosque leaders to ensure accuracy and authenticity.
“We focus on projects that increase understanding and relationships between Muslim and non-Muslim communities in the U.S.,” said Zeyba Rahman, senior program officer at the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. This is critical, she said, considering that today there are more than 1.2 billion Muslims, or roughly one-sixth of the world’s population.
Madelene Geswaldo, a teacher at the Manhattan School for Children, brought her second- and third-grade students last fall and used it as a starting point for a broader study of Islam. “We address Muslim culture in a positive way so that kids will not form ideas of having to be scared, or that all Muslims are terrorists or bad people,” Ms. Geswaldo said. The exhibition helped to “humanize” the culture and showcase its contributions to the world, she said.
The show has brought cultures together, even among visitors. Mr. Ackerman recalls a kindergarten class that visited the museum, where a young boy came across the rugs from Morocco. “He was from Morocco,” he said, “and got up and told his classmates how the rugs were made and what the designs meant.”
When the exhibition opened, the timing couldn’t have been better. The antiterrorism rhetoric that dominated President Trump’s election campaign, as well as global terrorist attacks, had fueled anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States. In January, President Trump’s order to temporarily ban people from seven nations with large Muslim populations divided the country further.
“It’s timely at this moment of great fear and anxiety among our community — all of us are feeling it,” Ms. Rahman said. “I think the extension of the exhibition will be useful to remind us of our great American heritage; it’s a country of immigrants.”
Plans are underway to find a larger home for the children’s museum, and when it moves, Mr. Ackerman hopes to make the exhibition permanent.
Hussein Rashid, founder of Islamicate, an organization that consults on religious and cultural issues pertaining to Islam, applauds the plan.
“Would I love to get more people to this exhibit and get them to understand that Muslims are human beings with desires and passions and artistic creativity in ways that maybe they haven’t thought about before? Absolutely,” Mr. Rashid said. “What is happening to Muslims now is tragic, but our goal is to educate.”