Museums and Libraries As Community Catalysts

How do museums and libraries catalyze communities? More specifically, how do they serve as “enablers of community vitality and co-creators of positive community change?” These are fundamental questions the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) is asking as part of the Community Catalyst Initiative. IMLS launched the initiative, in partnership with the William Penn Foundation and the Reinvestment Fund, in July 2016. On September 8–9, IMLS hosted around 70 museum and library professionals for a two-day Community Catalysts Town Hall in Philadelphia. The program invited attendees to reflect on how cultural institutions respond to challenges in their community, and how they work to improve the well-being of residents and the community at large.

Many topics were explored during the convening, including types of community well-being (e.g. economic, social connection, ethnic diversity), types of collaborations (leading vs. contributing vs. facilitating), and ways in which institutions understand the various needs of the communities they represent. However, what most piqued my interest was a discussion on institutional mindset; the philosophical underpinnings that make certain institutions better at implementing this type of community-based work.

It was mentioned repeatedly that museums and libraries are often perceived as trusted and neutral institutions. On one hand, trust in the foundation of all relationships. Trust between a cultural institution and its constituents is core to effective collaboration, especially those seeking to benefit a community. However, on the other hand, I question how an institution can truly catalyze a community if its intent on remaining neutral. To catalyze requires action and neutrality, by definition, affords inaction.

If cultural institutions are to become more effective catalysts, then staff must work to be more rooted in, and responsive to, the communities they serve. This is tough work. It requires working beyond the standard hours of operation. It requires knowing the needs of the community and how institutional assets can be leveraged to address the various needs. It requires continuous learning and improvement through both iterative and incremental approaches to program delivery.

I believe that our friends at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle best articulate what is required to be successful through their institutional values:

People give us meaning and purpose.
Relationships are our foundation.
We desire community empowerment and ownership.

To do this, we have found the following:

The work is labor intensive.
The work requires flexibility.
We willingly relinquish control.

This is an incredibly bold philosophy for a cultural institution. It shifts the institutional mindset, disrupting traditional power imbalances, and is both empowering and responsive. It roots community at the center of the institution’s work. I wonder how more traditional cultural institutions can adapt to incorporate such an approach; one that is connected with community and reciprocating in terms of benefits.

Cultural institutions that seek to become greater catalysts could learn a lot from community organizers. In many ways, becoming a catalysts requires a community building mindset. We should learn from the grassroots approaches of these organizers to further our work.

I’m optimistic about the direction museums and libraries are heading. And, I’m grateful that funding agencies like the IMLS are pushing the field to think about the evolving positions of cultural institutions in their respective communities. I look forward to seeing what emerges from the Community Catalysts Initiative and I encourage IMLS to put forth greater resources to enable cultural institutions to explore this approach to their work.

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Featured in Hour Detroit Magazine

The Arab American National Museum was featured in the June 2015 edition of Hour Detroit. There’s a nice article on the museum’s tenth anniversary.

Creating Conversations: For 10 years, Dearborn’s Arab American National Museum has been telling the community’s unique stories

“It makes you optimistic about the future for this institution, no matter who is here,” Akmon says. “It’s our goal to continue to contribute and to continue to mold it to that next shape.”

An image of an article in Hour Detroit
AANM featured in Hour Detroit
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2015 Arab Film Festival + Cinetopia

The Arab American National Museum is excited to be presenting the 2015 Arab Film Festival as part of the award-winning Cinetopia International Film Festival. That’s right, a film festival within a film festival. We’re awfully creative. The 2015 Arab Film Festival is also an important program within the Arab American National Museum’s tenth anniversary year programming schedule.

Cinetopia began on June 5 at the Detroit Institute of Arts in Detroit. We were pleased that one of our Arab Film Festival features served to kick off the festival program. That film was Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet. Produced by Selma Hayek and featuring top talent such as Liam Neeson, this major film premiered at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. Our screening in Detroit is one of the first public screenings in the US. In fact, the opening night screening took place on the north lawn of the Detroit Institute of Arts. This animated film will have its official US debut in August. In addition to the screening at the DIA, we will also showing The Prophet in the Museum’s new Annex and at the historic Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor.

In sum, there are eight films as part of the Arab Film Festival. Other titles include the award-winning Wadjda – the first feature film from a female in Saudi Arabia – and Cherien Dabis’ May in the Summer.

There are five days left in the festival. Score yourself some tickets!

2015 Arab Film Festival Schedule
2015 Arab Film Festival Schedule

Extended media coverage:

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AANM’s Anniversary Featured in Metromode

Thanks to Aaron Mondry and Metromode Media for the coverage of the Arab American National Museum’s upcoming tenth anniversary.

Dearborn, Mich. has the highest concentration of Arab Americans in the United States. The Arab American News, the largest and oldest Arab American newspaper in the country, is published there. The city’s police chief, Ronald Haddad, is Arab American.

Without question, Dearborn is the center of Arab American culture.

It’s no surprise, then, that the preeminent museum dedicated to documenting and preserving the Arab American story is located in Dearborn. The Arab American National Museum (AANM), the only Smithsonian Affiliate in Southeast Michigan, will celebrate its ten year anniversary this May. As part of the milestone, the museum will roll out a year-long series of events and renovations.

Here is a link to the full article.

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Art X Detroit

The third biennial Art X Detroit returns on April 9. For the uninitiated:

Art X Detroit: Kresge Arts Experience (AXD) is a 10-day festival of dance, literary, musical & theatrical performances, film screenings, visual arts installations, workshops, panel discussions & interactive experiences. AXD presents works created by the 2013-2014 Kresge Eminent Artists and Artist Fellows. AXD will be hosted at multiple venues throughout Midtown Detroit’s Cultural Center over a three-week period in April & is FREE to the public.

AXD is presented by The Kresge Foundation and produced by Midtown Detroit, Inc. AXD partners include: Kresge Arts in Detroit, College for Creative Studies, Creative Many, and MOCAD.

Dates: April 9-12, 16-19, and 25-26.

The Arab American National Museum is proud to sponsor two events as part of AXD. We’ll be supporting the sessions Rola Nashef, The Director’s Cut on April 16 at the Detroit Film Theatre, and Poetry and Music from Iraq (featuring Dunya Mikhail) on April 25 at MOCAD. Both Rola and Dunya are amazing artists. Further, they are both involved with several Arab American National Museum programs, including DIWAN6: A Forum for the Arts, which will take place on May 8-9, 2015.

Flyer for Rola Nashef, The Director's Cut- AXD
Rola Nashef, The Director’s Cut- AXD
Flyer for Poetry and Music - AXD
Poetry and Music – AXD
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2015 Knight Arts Challenge Q/A Sessions

The Knight Arts Challenge has done an amazing job of investing in arts initiatives throughout the metropolitan Detroit region. Starting Monday, March 16, interested parties can apply for a share of $3 million as part of the 2015 Challenge, which funds ideas for engaging and enriching Detroit through the arts.

The deadline for the challenge, a project of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, is April 13. Thus far in Detroit, the Knight Arts Challenge has awarded 114 winners about $5 million.

The Knight Foundation will host a launch party and a series of community Q&A sessions throughout Detroit to answer applicants’ questions. The Arab American National Museum is pleased to host an information session on Monday, March 23 at 6 p.m. Hope to see you there!

Flyer for the 2015 Knight Arts Challenge
2015 Knight Arts Challenge
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The Third Annual SphinxCon

Our friends at the Sphinx Organization will host the third annual SphinxCon, one of the nation’s leading arts diversity conferences, from Jan. 30 through Feb. 1, 2015 in Detroit! SphinxCon will bring more than 40 distinguished arts leaders together to discuss solutions to the challenges surrounding diversity in the performing arts. The Arab American National Museum is a proud program partner for this event, which features Maysoon Ziad.‬

Flyer for 2015 SphinxCon
2015 SphinxCon
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Patriots & Peacemakers in Washington, D.C.

The Arab American National Museum was honored to present the Patriots & Peacemakers exhibit at the Russell Senate Office Building Rotunda in Washington, D.C during the week of Veterans Day. Speaking to this, we were able to showcase the dedication of Arab Americans who have served our country in the heart of our nation’s capital; such a fitting and deserving way to recognize their contributions and heroism.

The opening reception—on November 12 in the majestic Kennedy Caucus Room—was an amazing event that brought together over 150 people to celebrate this exclusive exhibit and reflect upon its importance. The event hosted scores of Patriots featured in the exhibit; Members of Congress and their senior staff; colleagues from Smithsonian Affiliations and several Smithsonian museums; ambassadors; sponsors; and other friends of the AANM. We were pleased to welcome speakers from the three arenas of service featured in the exhibit: U.S. Peace Corps Deputy Director Kathy Rulon, Retired Brigadier General Guy Sands, and Deputy Under Secretary for Arabian Gulf Affairs at the State Department, Ambassador Susan Ziadeh, who is also featured in the exhibition. National Advisory Board member Ambassador Ed Gabriel moderated the program, which also featured remarks by myself and Board member Ziad Ojakli, whose Ford Motor Company was the exhibit underwriter for the D.C. visit.

To present accurate and timely information about Arab Americans on Capitol Hill, directly to our country’s leaders, represents an historic moment. As a Museum and as a national community, we are at a turning point. We are increasingly visible, increasingly enthusiastic, and increasingly united as we celebrate the diversity among Arab Americans. We are poised to emerge as a formidable force in American civil society, and our Museum is the catalyst.

Making remarks at the reception
Devon Akmon making introductory remarks during the reception in the Kennedy Caucus Room.
Exhibit in the ussell Senate Building Rotunda
Looking down at the exhibit in the Russell Senate Office Building Rotunda.
Viewing the exhibit
Guests explore the exhibit in the the Russell Senate Office Building Rotunda.
The Russell Senate Building Rotunda
Looking up at the Russell Senate Office Building Rotunda.
Displaying her cube in the exhibit
A Patriot proudly displays the cube featuring her service in the exhibit.
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Arab American Patriots & Peacemakers Honored with Capitol Hill Exhibition

Veterans Day holiday coincides with historic Arab American Nat’l Museum presentation Nov. 10-14 at Russell Senate Office Bldg.

America’s only museum celebrating the Arab American experience is bringing an original exhibition on public service to Capitol Hill in time for Veterans Day on Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2014.

Patriots & Peacemakers: Arab Americans in Service to Our Country will be on public display in the Rotunda of the Russell Senate Office Building, 2 Constitution Ave. NE, Monday, Nov. 10 through Friday, Nov. 14, 2014. Admission is free.

Created by the Arab American National Museum (AANM) in Dearborn, Mich., this multimedia, interactive exhibition tells true stories of heroism and self-sacrifice that affirm the important role Arab American men and women of diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds have played in our country throughout its history. Patriots & Peacemakers highlights 170 people from 39 states in three specific areas of service: the U.S. Armed Forces, diplomatic corps and the Peace Corps.

More than two dozen Washington, D.C.-based Arab American patriots are featured in the exhibition; visit to view a list. Among them are Gen. John P. Abizaid and Gen. George Joulwan of the U.S. Army; Army veterans and diplomats George J. Mitchell and Philip Habib; diplomats Edward Gabriel, Susan L. Ziadeh, Marcelle Wahba and Camille Nowfel (a diplomatic interpreter for five U.S. presidents); and Peace Corps workers George Gorayeb, Raja’e Nami, Nura Suleiman and Ruth Ann Skaff.

Gabriel, Ziadeh, Skaff, and several more Arab American patriots, as well as federal lawmakers, military, diplomatic and Peace Corps leadership, will be in attendance at a private Wed., Nov. 12 reception in the Kennedy Caucus Room at the Russell Senate Office Building.

“Arab Americans have been an integral part of the United States of America since its inception, contributing to our society in myriad ways, including public service, with dignity, loyalty and sacrifice,” says Devon Akmon, director of the AANM.

“Right now, there is so much damaging misinformation being spread about Arab Americans, especially when world events cause some people to paint with a far too broad a brush,” Akmon continues. “To present accurate and timely information about Arab Americans in our nation’s capital, directly to our country’s leaders, represents an historic moment for the Museum and the national Arab American community.”

Following four years of national research and curation, Patriots & Peacemakers originally opened at the AANM on Veterans Day, Nov. 11, 2011, and has since been presented in Jacksonville, Fla.; Topeka, Kan. (Brown v. Board of Education Historic Site); Houston; and two Southern California venues (Japanese American National Museum and University of California – Irvine). While this large version of the traveling exhibition is on display in our nation’s capital in November, a smaller version of Patriots & Peacemakers is on display through Nov. 20, 2014, at the Alif Institute in Atlanta.

Creation of the original exhibition was made possible in part by the Ford Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan, and Chevron. The AANM gratefully acknowledges the following legislators for their contributions: Michigan’s Sen. Carl Levin, Sen. Debbie Stabenow and Rep. John D. Dingell, and the late Sen. Daniel Inouye.

Supporting the Washington, D.C. presentation of Patriots & Peacemakers are Chevron, Ford Motor Company, Embassy of the United Arab Emirates, DLA Piper LLP and many more; media sponsorship provided by

Read more about the Capitol Hill presentation of Patriots & Peacemakers at

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