Blog: Devon Akmon

Devon Akmon has a strong affinity for the community-based organization that seeks to empower and enrich the lives of those it serves. Currently, Devon serves as deputy director of the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. As a museum professional, he is most interested in collective memory and new media initiatives. 

Devon joined the museum staff fresh out of graduate school in May 2005, just as the AANM was opening its doors to the public.  Although he never received a formal education in museum studies, he was compelled to join the AANM staff upon learning of the museum and its mission.  As a third generation Arab American, the importance of this institution was not lost on him.

In addition, Devon volunteers with other nonprofits in Detroit and Ann Arbor, MI. In his spare time, he has also served on various nonprofit boards and municipal committees.

When not at work, he spends much of his time reading, running, cycling, gardening, making/hacking, and hanging out with friends and family. He has a strong interest in the visual arts, community building, urban homesteading, and living sustainably.

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Post 2: Striving to be a National Institution

What does it mean to be a national museum? Whose stories do we reflect? What do we aspire to be? These are all common questions that I receive when people first learn about the Arab American National Museum (AANM).  Understandably, the word "national" in the title can be a bit ambiguous. However, when understood in the context of the Museum's history and its operations, things become much clearer.

The AANM reflects the diversity and experiences of Arab Americans from across the nation.  It sees itself as a safe and inclusive place for all people of Arab ancestry to feel welcomed.  When the museum was first planned, staff travelled extensively across the United States holding community meetings with Arab Americans in numerous cities and states. This helped to gauge the feasibility of the Museum in many ways. For instance, it helped to determine if individuals and families would support the Museum both financially and by donating artifacts and personal stories to the collection. As part of this process, regional committees and a National Advisory Board were established. This laid the groundwork for becoming a truly national institution.

The AANM is committed to expanding upon this initial work to meet its goals of becoming a stronger institution with an even greater impact.  Beginning this year, the AANM is taking several core programs and exhibits out of Michigan for the first time to locations throughout the nation. For example, this October the AANM will host the annual Arab American Book Award ceremony in Washington, D.C. Next spring the Museum will host its biannual arts conference, DIWAN: A Forum for the Arts, in New York City.  The Museum's curatorial department is working on building traveling exhibitions that reflect the diverse experiences of Arab Americans. These exhibits, which focus on specific themes, will reflect the collective history of Arab Americans, extending across time and space. Additionally, the Museum's education department is expanding its reach.  Through the support of foundations like the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the AANM has been able to bring educators from around Michigan and from neighboring Midwestern states to the Museum for workshops and trainings.  Moreover, the staff is traveling to new locations, as far away as Utah, to better inform new constituents on the history, culture, and customs of Arab Americans.

I would be remiss to not mention the role of technology in achieving the goal of becoming a stronger, more vibrant national institution. Social media technologies are permitting new conversations with an international audience. These tools allow the AANM to both listen and engage with our audience and supporters. Additionally, online tools such as iTunes U allow for wide dissemination of the AANM's educational content. Web access to collections and online exhibits permits a global audience to learn more about the community and to conduct research on Arab Americans.  These technologies continue to influence the ways in which we connect with our constituents and reach an expanding audience.

Although it's been only five years, the AANM has built a solid foundation. We are very optimistic about the future. We hope to continue to be a source of community pride; to remain rooted in the national community; to be the turned-to resource for information on Arab Americans; and to bring to life the rich and evolving history of a growing national community of proud Americans.

Post 1: Arab American National Museum is 1 in 17,000

Founded on May 5, 2005, the Arab American National Museum (AANM) will soon celebrate its fifth anniversary. People are often curious about the Museum's origins and its location.  Although the Museum is still very much a startup, its roots extend back to the late 1980s.  In fact, the AANM is a part of the Dearborn-based Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS). In 1987 the agency developed a cultural arts department to educate the public on Arab American culture and to provide affordable and accessible arts programming. Today, the AANM is an extension of this program and it remains a vibrant department within ACCESS. Although it is very uncommon for a museum to be part of a social service agency, ACCESS considers the arts to be just one part of a multi-component approach to providing comprehensive services for living an enriched and fulfilling life.

Southeast Michigan is home to the largest concentration of Arab Americans in the United States.  An estimated 500,000 Arab Americans reside in Michigan and approximately one-third of Dearborn's population is of Arab ancestry.  This makes Dearborn the logical place for a community-based museum with a focus on Arab Americans.  Thanks to the numerous ethnic businesses in the area, guests can learn about the history within the museum and explore the surrounding community to experience firsthand the food and culture. This provides a truly immersive experience.  

There are over 17,000 museums in the United States, and the AANM is the only one dedicated to documenting and celebrating Arab American history and culture.  Similar to other ethnic museums, the AANM serves as an outlet for an underrepresented community.  In fact, prior to its origin, the only major museum collection of Arab American history was the Alixa Naff collection at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Today, the AANM is an Affiliate of the Smithsonian and it houses its own permanent collection, which includes oral histories, photographs, artwork and personal artifacts and ephemera. In addition to being a source of community pride, the AANM serves as a catalyst for building collective community history.

Historically, wealthy individuals who amassed large personal collections founded many museums in the United States. Other museums were founded to preserve and display a particular type of object or collection. The AANM focuses more on community than objects.  In fact, a key interpretive strategy is to tell community history through the use of personal stories. The artifacts on display help to interpret and provide meaning to the stories. These stories create a mosaic that collectively provides insight into the history of Arab Americans and their traditions.  Moreover, it is a way to develop empathy, dispel stereotypes, and celebrate the commonalities between all Americans.  

At its core, the AANM is a community-based museum representing a community nationwide.  The stories and objects on display come from around the country and span hundreds of years of history within the United States. As part of the planning process when building the AANM, staff traveled the country conducting focus groups in Arab American communities and collecting stories and artifacts. This work served as the foundation for the museum and its collection.

As a way to remain rooted in the community, the AANM utilizes many committees comprised of community members with a particular level of expertise. These committees include a National Advisory Board comprised of prominent Arab Americans; a Friends Committee who work tirelessly to raise funds for the museum; collections and exhibits committees that work with the curatorial team; and special committees formed to assist with key programs at the museum. This allows an exchange of ideas, a process for receiving feedback and a way to explore ideas and meet the needs of the Arab American community.

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