The Children’s Museum of Manhattan successfully navigated potential backlash in developing an exhibition on Muslim cultures.
Many museums across the globe face the same challenge: creating exhibitions that offer opportunities to expand visitors’ ever-developing sense of self, knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors.
With “America to Zanzibar: Muslim Cultures Near and Far,” a 2,500-square-foot immersive and interactive exhibition that explores the diversity of Muslim cultures around the world, the Children’s Museum of Manhattan (CMOM) had the additional challenges of accurately representing the beauty and wonder of the cultural expressions and daily life of more than 1.6 billion people in one exhibition, while engaging both children and adults.
After seven years of planning, the exhibition opened in 2016 with the goal of advancing public understanding and knowledge of local Muslim cultures in the greater context of world cultures, past and present. CMOM had never before developed an exhibition that presented multiple cultures linked by a single religion.
Skip over related stories to continue reading article Adding to this challenge, the exhibition was potentially contentious because, unfortunately, some conflate Islam with terrorism, even though, according to a 2014 US State Department estimate, only 1/8 of 1/100th of 1 percent of Muslims globally are suspected of having links to terrorist organizations.
Nonetheless, CMOM needed to carefully navigate this reality and global events, which meant managing the exhibition messaging to appeal to a diverse public and elevating the discourse about the exhibition beyond rhetoric and sensationalism. CMOM also needed to avoid becoming a political tool of interest groups with an agenda contrary to the museum’s.
The complexity of these issues, along with the diversity of the cultures and the range of potentially concerned stakeholders, called for a multifaceted plan to achieve our educational goals.
In creating and executing that plan, the museum learned the following key lessons.
Cultivate extensive community input to ensure accuracy and support.
The content available for the exhibition’s several narratives was expansive, spanning different people and places over thousands of years. The exhibit development team cultivated partnerships to inform and advise on all elements of the project, from the colors, logo, text, activities, and design to the selection of the individuals and cultures included. Our partners included academics, religious scholars, families, interfaith leaders, local community leaders, designers, architects, artists, musicians, international political advisors and notables, the United Nations missions in New York and Washington, DC, and partner institutions such as the Asia Society and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Finding key lead advisors who knew the cultural landscape and the academic and faith circles was essential to the project’s success. In 2009, we met with our first cultural advisor, Zeyba Rahman. In 2014, we met Hussein Rashid, a lead advisor throughout the project. As a Muslim, an Islamic studies scholar, a father, a pop culture and graphic novel expert, a New Yorker, and a well-connected community member, Rashid was an invaluable guide. He helped the exhibit development team form the content, conducted research, reviewed material, coordinated meetings, and introduced us to experts.
Rely on the museum’s mission to define strengths and limits.
Staff and advisors agreed that the exhibition’s purpose was not to educate about Islam, explain the doctrines or religious practices of Muslims, or assume that we could change attitudes about a religion. Instead, our goal was to showcase and celebrate the cultural diversity of those who self-identify as Muslim.
However, we wanted to ensure that visitors had a baseline, and accurate, understanding of who a Muslim is. So the advisors helped us craft an introductory definition of Islam, which appears on the entry panel: A Muslim is someone who follows the religion of Islam. In Islam there is only one God, called Allah. The holy book of Islam is the Qur’an, believed to be the word of God as it was revealed in Arabic to the prophet Muhammad. Muhammad was born around 570 A.D. in the city of Mecca, now in Saudi Arabia. There are approximately 1.6 billion Muslims in the world today.
While this was the museum’s only interpretive text specifically about Islam, the exhibition presented hundreds of individual Muslim perspectives and cultural expressions.
Use universal themes for specific and diverse cultural moments.
The exhibition is organized by themes found throughout Muslim cultures that were accessible to all families, including travel and trade, architecture, marketplaces, American homes, and courtyards. The exhibits team matched past and present Muslim cultural expressions and stories with opportunities for families to explore the activities through interactive, child-friendly experiences: playing dress-up, driving a truck, sailing on a boat, pretending to fish. Offering visitors the opportunity to engage with sights, sounds, smells, first-person quotes, structures, and designs was a priority. Such activities also invite adults to learn new information and revisit preconceptions in a nonjudgmental environment.
The exhibit development team, along with the advisors, worked for years to gather ideas, stories, and content. In a Harlem market, the team met and discussed Senegalese patterns with a skilled Muslim tailor who had left Senegal to train in France and now works in New York City.
An Egyptian artist in Astoria, Queens, hand-sculpted the exhibition’s popular, lifelike, climb-aboard camel. The developers tasted avocado coffee at an Indonesian café downtown while recording the owner’s voice for the exhibition-related app through which children can learn to write and say “My name is” in the more than 20 languages spoken by Muslim New Yorkers. This is just a small sampling of those the team engaged with to ensure we accurately represented a diversity of communities.
Feature first-person voices, authentic objects, and contemporary art.
The exhibition incorporates contemporary and historical art and objects from individuals and cultures. The American home area features stories, voices, personal objects, and artifacts on loan from 14 local Muslims, including an African American historian, a Turkish American museum educator, an East-Indian American mayor, and a Nuyorican (New York Puerto Rican) hip-hop artist. The displays offer glimpses of personal and religious similarities and differences through toys, books, clothes, songs, prayer beads, a gavel, golf clubs, slippers, and more.
Partner institutions and private collectors loaned objects to complement the designed environments and experiences. Object cases featured items from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Muhammad Ali Center, the Hispanic Society Library & Museum of New York, Moroccan rug weavers, the Turkish Consulate, and the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center.
We paired the exhibition with the American Muslim Artist Series, which featured local and contemporary designers, painters, dancers, and photographers. For example, visitors could experience an American-Senegalese Muslim painter’s work adjacent to the NYC-Senegalese fashion stall or compare the patterns on the Met’s centuries-old Iranian tiles with the contemporary patterns seen in a photo of a dancer’s costume.
Study the landscape of dissenters and prepare a strategy for managing controversy.
Throughout the exhibition development process, negative associations with the words “Islam” and “Muslim” increased in the media. The exhibition team was nervous at times, but CMOM’s executive director, Andrew Ackerman, and the board of trustees were resolved to proceed. The museum has always wanted to offer children, and families, safe spaces to positively construct their cultural understandings. Children witnessing negative attitudes might use those as norms for interacting with others if they aren’t presented with different perspectives.
CMOM engaged BoomGen, a firm with unique expertise in public discourse about Muslims in America, to help create a multifaceted strategy to study the broader landscape of potential supporters and dissenters. BoomGen also provided counsel on public relations, marketing, institution-wide messaging, and how to handle controversy.
Manage content and framing that could cause backlash.
The approach to culture in “America to Zanzibar” is inspired by the diversity of New York City and the United States. Therefore, “America” is first in the title, followed by “Zanzibar,” a majority Muslim culture. The title highlights the “travel around the world” concept by adapting the familiar “from A to Z” phrase.
With the social climate as it was, the team debated whether to include the tagline “Muslim Cultures Near and Far.” Using the word “Muslim” risked potential unnecessary negative attention. In the end, we included the tagline to publicly state the institution’s support for Muslim cultures.
In anticipation of questions about the project, the advisors helped develop thoughtful, easy-to-understand talking points. The exhibits team held informational training sessions for the entire institution to help everyone, from maintenance staff to museum educators, understand and be comfortable with the content and the institutional intent behind the project. Muslim scholars answered questions about Islam and international cultures and practices. In an abundance of caution, the museum briefed the New York Police Department (NYPD) on the project and hosted an NYPD safety training for the staff. Responses to frequently asked questions—which, among other things, covered why the museum decided to focus on Muslims and not 9/11 and terrorism—were disseminated, reviewed, and kept at the admissions desk.
In preparation for press interviews, the senior staff attended an off-site media training, which helped them develop compelling personal stories about their experience working on “America to Zanzibar.” Staff members also practiced redirecting tough questions to ensure they could maintain control of the story. This helped the team feel more empowered when engaging with all stakeholders, regardless of their intentions or questions.
Celebrate and share successes.
The exhibition opened in 2016 to wide acclaim and interest from national and international news sources, museum professionals, and the public. It received positive attention from The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Al Jazeera, Fox, WNBC, Aramco, Breitbart, and the Washington Post, to name a few. The Guides Association of New York City nominated it for Outstanding Achievement in NYC Museum Exhibitions.
“America to Zanzibar” is currently traveling the US, including Philadelphia, Chattanooga, Louisville, and Chicago, with more cities to come. Though initially, no one wanted to rent it, we had designed the exhibition to be able to travel. It’s a good thing we did.
Without a doubt, developing “America to Zanzibar” was a complex process. But it was all worthwhile every time we observed a global tea party in the exhibition’s marketplace—a group of multicultural children, wrapped and styled in Senegalese fabrics, serving Zanzibari fish with Egyptian spices on Turkish plates at the Tajikistan teahouse table. They readily accepted the diversity.
3 Reasons to Proceed
Andrew Ackerman, executive director of the Children’s Museum of Manhattan (CMOM), shares why he was resolved to create the “America to Zanzibar” exhibition during tumultuous times.
It was the right thing to do from a societal and an educational perspective.
One in 12 New York City public school students, and more than 1.6 billion people worldwide identify as Muslim. We determined that it was vitally important for these children to see themselves, and for non-Muslim children to see their neighbors, reflected in a mainstream cultural institution.
An exhibition on Muslim cultures had never been done for a family audience.
CMOM is known for taking risks; however, this was the first time we used the practice of a worldwide religion, Islam, as the common denominator by which to explore and celebrate diverse countries, cultures, and customs.
The board of directors was always supportive. The risks inherent in the project were myriad: a potential boycott or, worse, targeted violence; inaccurately or insufficiently representing particular Muslim cultures; other religious communities feeling slighted that we weren’t focusing on their belief systems and cultures, or the misperception that we were trying to “brainwash” our young visitors. Nevertheless, when you believe in a vision, you find a way to bring it to life. Our board of directors was fully committed to this exhibition and was the source of initial funding.
Lizzy Martin is the director of exhibition development and museum planning at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan in New York.