How these two Dearborn museums have big plans for 2022

The Arab American National Museum and the Dearborn Historical Museum have big plans for 2022, with the former reopening after nearly two years of being closed to the public and the latter undergoing a significant re-envisioning of how it tells Dearborn’s story. We checked in with both.

As much as she loves her co-workers, Lujine Nasralla is ready to see some new faces roaming the halls of the Arab American National Museum. It’s been nearly two years since the museum has opened its doors to the public, the museum hunkered down like the rest of us since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in March 2020. And while the Arab American National Museum has found new ways to reach an even larger audience throughout the course of the pandemic, through virtual events, a new podcast, and more, Nasralla and her colleagues are ready to welcome the familiar faces they’ve missed and a new generation of visitors to the museum once more.

But, oh, that Michigan weather. With heavy snows anticipated for Wednesday, Feb. 2, the day they planned their grand re-opening celebration, the Arab American National Museum (AANM) postponed their ribbon cutting ceremony a few days for later in the week. The museum advises guests to check their social media for updates.

It will be soon, though; we do know that. And the staff at AANM — and the community — can’t wait for when it happens.

“We’ve had a lot of inquiries about when we’re reopening again. A lot of people are missing us and so we have this renewed sense of purpose and confidence that we are necessary and we are a storyteller for our community,” says Lujine Nasralla, communications specialist for the museum.

“We’re excited to see our community come through the doors, too, and not just us walking through the empty halls.”

The museum has stayed busy throughout the pandemic and even managed to reach a bigger audience. Virtual events have played a key part in this, allowing museum programs to be enjoyed by people the world over. Open mics and concert performances have been streamed online. Seen Jeem, a new podcast co-produced with the University of Michigan-Dearborn’s Center for Arab American Studies that features interviews with prominent Arab American writers, debuted last year. And as AANM gears up for more in-person events, the museum plans to continue live-streaming those events to keep reaching more and more people.

“There's the local Arab community in Dearborn itself. But we also recognize that the Arab diaspora is very widespread and includes different countries, too. We had a virtual music festival in September of 2021 and we actually had a lot of people tuning in from South America, especially Brazil and Argentina and Chile,” Nasralla says.

Taking advantage of the absence of in-person visitors, the museum had a bit of a makeover, including upgrades to exhibit displays, new floors, and some fresh coats of paint. An introductory film has also been updated.

Pictured here is a scene of what the museum was like pre-COVID. “Reopening means getting to meet with the community again and hopefully engage with new museum-goers,” Lujine Nasralla says.
Visitors to the museum will finally get to experience soft powers: A Solo Exhibition by Yasmine Nasser Diaz. The mixed media artist was setting up her exhibition in early 2020 when COVID-19 struck and the museum has been patiently waiting to let visitors in to see it ever since. Also on exhibit is reCRAFTED Histories: An Installation by Zahra Almajidi. The artist and metalsmith was the museum’s artist-in-residence for October and November, 2021.

Nasralla also hints at an exciting new installation coming this spring, a “spaceship set to launch” in mid-March. More details will be announced soon, she says.

While it’s no doubt disappointing that the reopening celebration has been delayed a day or two by this recent snowstorm, the Arab American National Museum is that much more excited to welcome the community back through their doors. 

“Reopening means getting to meet with the community again and hopefully engage with new museum-goers, like the younger generation, and welcoming more people in our doors than we did before — safely, of course,” Nasralla says.

“I think we have a renewed sense of purpose as to what we mean as a cultural organization in the world and in the community. Both economically, like how do we add to the economic benefits of the community itself. And then also, what do we, as a cultural institution, mean to our community members.”

‘It’s important to tell these stories’

A quick drive down Michigan Avenue lands you at another of Dearborn’s downtown museums: the Dearborn Historical Museum. With three buildings spread across two sites in west downtown Dearborn, the Historical Museum is poised to have a big 2022 thanks to the reimagining and renovation of the Commandant’s Quarters. The building was built in 1834 as part of the Detroit Arsenal and is one of three surviving buildings from the former military site.

The Commandant’s Quarters in west downtown Dearborn, part of the Dearborn Historical Museum.
For years, the Historical Museum used the Commandant’s Quarters to demonstrate what life was like at the time it was built, complete with furniture, art, and artifacts of the day. Now museum staff is reimagining the building as a museum of Dearborn history itself. While two rooms will continue to be presented as a snapshot of a military leader’s life “on the frontier” in 1834, the rest of the building will tell Dearborn’s story, from its founding to today.

“This will still be called the Dearborn Historical Museum but for the first time, we'll actually have rooms about Dearborn,” says Tyler Moll, exhibits designer for the Dearborn Historical Museum.

“We have three historic houses, but none of them actually had that much to show about Dearborn. They're mostly set up as houses. And in today's world, that just doesn't really work anymore. People want to know the real history of the town, and about all these objects and why we save them.”

The project has been in the works for about two years, Moll says, and a recent $10,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services helped put the renovations into motion. The museum is contributing another $10,000 to the project.

Tyler Moll, exhibits designer for the Dearborn Historical Museum, is joined in the renovations by James (right), a volunteer, and Audrey Wicklander (center), a museum intern.Traveling through the rooms of the Commandant’s Quarters will allow visitors to travel through the story of Dearborn itself. It starts with the Native Americans that first called the area home before covering the city’s early brick-making industry, the Detroit Arsenal, Henry Ford, World War II, immigrants arriving from the Middle East, and more.

It’s hoped that the new-look Dearborn Historical Museum will open this October.

“Dearborn never really had a museum like this. We have a storage building down the road where we saved all these artifacts of businesses and people and governance and things like that. But we never really had a good place to display it all. This building is our biggest building and offered the most opportunity to finally display that stuff and tell the stories for the first time. Before, all you could do was a small little case in a random room in a house. Now we can do a whole room about whatever we want,” Moll says.

“It's important to tell these stories and, really, for the first time. The museum was admittedly pretty bad at telling the stories of immigration and Middle Eastern history and people that have been here for almost 100 years. So we're trying to reach out to those groups and bring them in here and make sure that this is fully Dearborn.”
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MJ Galbraith is a writer and musician living in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.