Dearborn's Arab American National Museum finds ‘silver linings’ in pandemic

Although COVID-19 struck Dearborn's Arab American National Museum (AANM) a major financial blow, museum director Diana Abouali says there are "silver linings" to the pandemic that will positively affect the institution in the long term.


The museum closed to the public on March 13 and laid off 11 of its 20 staffers – six part-time and five full-time – in late April. Abouali says the institution was "lucky" to receive emergency grant funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, and CultureSource, but she says "more is needed" for AANM and all museums and nonprofits.


"There was a financial cost to all of this," Abouali says. "We lost a lot of our earned revenue and some corporate funds were diverted or just gone because of the pandemic and the economic downturn."


As so many individuals and institutions have during the pandemic, AANM turned to digital platforms to continue connecting with the world – and that's where the positives come in. The museum has successfully reached new audiences by presenting a wide variety of events, ranging from panel discussions to poetry readings, on Zoom and social media.


Abouali says one of the most popular such offerings has been a film screening series presented online in collaboration with two other Arab-American organizations: the San Francisco-based Arab Film and Media Institute and New York City-based ArteEast. She is on the board of the latter, and AANM has worked with both organizations before, but never so close.


"There was a spirit of 'Let's try to get through this together and collaborate and see what we can do,'" Abouali says. "I think it's been just a very positive experience. There's been this sense of camaraderie and solidarity."


Each film screening has attracted hundreds of participants. Abouali says AANM has also found great success with its "Yalla Eat!" Instagram takeover series, in which local and national Arab American chefs demonstrate how to make various dishes. She notes that engagement on AANM's social media platforms has been up by about 50% overall since the museum pivoted to all online programming.


Abouali says AANM is reaching new national and international audiences as a result, which dovetails nicely with the institution's goals.


"The word 'national' is in our title, but we're a very Southeast Michigan community-based organization, aspiring to do more work nationally and reaching out to the national Arab-American community," she says. "I think just by virtue of ... social media and the different digital platforms, it's just so much easier to connect with other people elsewhere. And I think the programming we've done has been relevant and meaningful. It seems to have filled a niche or scratched an itch that people have."


The shift to digital programming has also prompted AANM staff to offer even more resources online. The museum is planning a small online exhibit in October, featuring materials from its archives that belong or pertain to members of the Pen League, the first Arabic-language literary society in North America. Looking beyond that, Abouali says staff is also considering ways to make more of AANM's archives available online.


Abouali says AANM has no immediate plans to reopen because the cost of sanitation procedures is "prohibitive" and she suspects the public is still leery of returning to museums. However, she says she's "not worried" about AANM's future.


"We'll reopen for sure," Abouali says. "... It's just a matter of when. Whether it's this year or early next year, I'm not sure. But we will get through it."


Read more articles by Patrick Dunn.

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @patrickdunnhere