Case Study: Why Oral History Matters
The Experience of the Arab American National Museum
by Anan Ameri
The last few decades has witnessed the creation of a number of ethnic museums, such as the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle, and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., to mention a few. These culturally-specific institutions are– for the most part– a response to the real or perceived exclusion of minorities from mainstream institutions, including museums.
These ethnic museums are intended to document, preserve, and present the experience of the group or community they represent. But, in fact, these museums are faced with the challenge and the responsibility of accurately representing their respective communities. Often these museums want to tell their communities’ “own story” from their “own perspective” and their “own experience.” But the question of representation is a very complicated one, regardless of how homogeneous any community might be. For example, claiming that we, at the Arab American National Museum (AANM), needed to tell our story in our own voice assumed that Arab-Americans had one voice and one story to tell. But the Arab world, from where Arab-Americans came, is vast and diverse. Arab-Americans have been coming to the United States in significant numbers since the 19th century and continue to arrive on a daily basis. Earlier Arab immigrants, especially those who came during the Great Immigration Era (1880-1924), were mostly Syrian and Lebanese Christian villagers. The immigrants of the 1950s to the early 1970s were largely urban professionals and more diverse in their national and religious background. The latest influxes of Arab immigrants are mostly Muslims from Yemen, Palestine, Lebanon, and Iraq. The majority of them are war refugees.
The diversity of Arab-Americans is much more than the time of immigration, national origin, and religious background. Arab-Americans live in small towns and in major metropolitan areas. Many have assimilated in suburban communities; others live in predominantly Arab-American enclaves. Some are middle- and upper-class professionals; others are farm and factory workers. Some Arab-American women are highly educated and work in a variety of professions; others stay home taking care of their families. Despite their diversity, Arab-Americans do have a shared ethnic identity and cultural heritage.
The challenge for us was to create a museum with exhibits and public programming that would reflect the complexity of the Arab-American experience and represent the full religious, national, professional, and lifestyle diversity. We wanted to create an institution that would make both a fourth-generation Christian, whose great-grandparents came from Syria, and a newly arrived Muslim immigrant from Iraq feel that the museum told their stories.
Oral History-Based Exhibits
To address this issue of complex diversity we turned to personal narratives. During the creation of the AANM’s permanent exhibits, we traveled to many cities and towns and met with new immigrants and third- and fourth-generation Arab-Americans. We collected oral histories and personal narratives as well as artifacts and historical documents from every state. For example, we recorded the oral history of a granddaughter of a Lebanese peddler in Massachusetts. We recorded the oral history of a Palestinian-American in New York. We heard hundreds of stories told by Arab-Americans, their children, and their grandchildren. In addition to the oral histories we collected, the museum also gathered many pre-recorded oral histories from families, libraries, and historical societies, including Ellis Island National Monument. These oral histories were integrated with our permanent exhibits. For example, in the permanent exhibit entitled In Coming to America our visitors can hear immigrants tell their story of arriving to Ellis Island or getting on a boat in Beirut, Lebanon. These stories fascinate our visitors as they hear about the experience from the very person featured in the exhibit. It also allows us to represent a wide range of experiences. Of course, these oral histories had to be cut down to bare minimum or to a few sentences that were most fitting to the specific part of the exhibit. The longer versions of these oral histories were added to our archives.
The interest generated by the collection and integration of oral histories in our permanent exhibits led us to utilize oral histories as a major component in most of our temporary exhibits. Both In Times of War: Her Untold Story and Connecting Communities were heavily based on oral histories of the people featured in the exhibits. For both exhibits we recruited and trained college students with the help of oral history experts, humanities scholars, photojournalists, and curators. The students stayed with each project from its initial stage until completion, and were involved in selecting the written and audio/visual components of the exhibits.
For In Times of War, we wanted to explore the impact of wars on women. We recruited 16 female students to participate in the project and collect oral histories of women whose lives were impacted by wars. After finishing the oral history training, the students worked in pairs to collect the oral history of women featured in the exhibit. Visitors could then read and hear the stories of these women in their own voices. Public programming for the exhibit included a panel discussion featuring women in the exhibit as well as the students who collected the oral histories. The students talked about what they learned from these women and from their own experience doing the project.
Similar methodology was used in the Connecting Communities exhibit, which featured immigrant communities in metro Detroit, taking into consideration the current local and national debate on immigration. In this project we recruited 20 ethnically diverse students, both men and women. These students were also trained in oral history methodology and collected the oral histories of individuals featured in the exhibit. These individuals belonged to three neighborhoods (Dearborn, Southwest Detroit and Hamtramck) that have large immigrant communities. And as with In Times of War, audiences could hear and read parts of these interviews. Oral histories collected in both projects were added to our archives.
The latest and largest traveling exhibit we have recently produced is Patriots and Peace Makers: Arab Americans in Service to Our Nation. This exhibit, which opened at the Arab American National Museum on November 11, 2011, took over three years to produce. Our staff traveled to 37 states and collected the stories of over two hundred 200 Arab-Americans who served in the U.S. Military, Peace Corps, or Diplomatic Corps. While some of the oral histories collected were short and focused on service, others were full-length personal histories. As in other exhibits, we integrated many of these oral histories either as text, audio, or video.
Modern Oral History and Technology
Interestingly enough, while the Arab American National Museum is relatively new (opened in May 2005) the change in technology in these few years has been rather overwhelming. Technology has changed our lives drastically, most importantly in the area of inclusion and accessibility, and has opened many venues for the use of oral histories in new and innovative ways. This has made it possible for us to share our oral histories in numerous ways.
With modern technology we can simultaneously collect oral histories of individuals living in different districts, regions, cities, or countries. This can be very significant, especially if we are looking at specific and/or timely issues that involve populations in different parts of the world. For example, if we want to look at the life of a Bosnian or Iraqi war refugee, talk to members of the same family who emigrated to different countries as a result of war, or collect oral histories about the impact of certain events on populations in various parts of a country or the world, we can do much of this from the museum.
Another aspect of accessibility is that people can record their own histories remotely. For example, the Japanese American National Museum has a Web site where internment camp detainees can record their own experience. This is extremely important due to the age of the internment camp “interned” and their geographical distribution.
Technology makes collected oral histories accessible to people around the globe, thus facilitating partnerships among institutions and countries. For example, the Arab American National Museum is currently working with the Children’s Museum in Jordan on an environmental project. Part of the project includes youth interviewing elder family members about the change in consumption and waste habits over the years in both countries. These interviews are posted and shared on a joint online exhibit. Other youth who are not directly part of the project can also collect and post stories of their elders. This could not have happened 20 years ago.
With improved technology, not only can we create oral history-based exhibits and online museums and partnerships across the globe, we can also shake the dust from collected oral histories that used to be stored in archives and libraries. Today, with modern technology, we can make a much better use of oral histories and make them available to much larger audiences.
Citation for Article
Ameri, A. (2012). Case study: why oral history matters the experience of the arab american national museum. In D. Boyd, S. Cohen, B. Rakerd, & D. Rehberger (Eds.), Oral history in the digital age. Institute of Library and Museum Services. Retrieved from http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/06/arab-american-national-museum/.
Ameri, Anan. “Case Study: Why Oral History Matters The Experience of the Arab American National Museum,” in Oral History in the Digital Age, edited by Doug Boyd, Steve Cohen, Brad Rakerd, and Dean Rehberger. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2012, http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/06/arab-american-national-museum/
This is a production of the Oral History in the Digital Age Project (http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu) sponsored by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Please consult http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/about/rights/ for information on rights, licensing, and citation.