Q&A with Dr. Diana Abouali, new director of the Arab American National Museum

Born in Toronto to Palestinian parents. Primary and secondary education in Kuwait. A Bachelor of Arts from Wellesley College. A Master of Arts and PhD from Harvard University. A professional career that’s taken her from New Hampshire to Palestine to Jordan.

And, as of just a few months ago, to Dearborn, Michigan.

Dr. Diana Abouali was announced as the new director of the Arab American National Museum in late February of 2019. We reached out to Dr. Abouali, asking her why she came to Dearborn, the museum itself, and her impressions of her new hometown.

Diana Abouali. Photo courtesy Salam Center Studio.Q: What drew you to the position at the Arab American National Museum?

A: The opportunity to work at a prestigious national institution like the Arab American National Museum (AANM) was something that I could not pass up. AANM has established itself as a museum that strives toward excellence in everything that it does, and it has consistently maintained those high standards since it opened fourteen years ago. I felt I had a lot I could bring to the museum given my personal and professional background, but I also felt it was a place where I could learn a lot and grow. It’s a challenge and a great responsibility to head a place like AANM, and I’m honored and happy to be here.

Q: What is the museum’s role in the community and Dearborn at large?

A: AANM is a community-based museum with a mission to preserve, document, and present the indelible contributions that Arab Americans have made and continue to make to the development of this country over the past 150 years. As an institution, our doors are open to everyone who is interested in learning about Arab American history, and to exploring and experiencing our rich and diverse culture. As a space, we offer our premises to local community groups which they can use to hold their own meetings and events. Through our arts and culture programming, we bring people together for a collective appreciation and celebration of the creative human spirit.

Q: What are some of your goals and objectives for the museum as you begin your tenure?

A: It’s still in my early days; I’m only in my second month at my post. My goals are ones that I am currently in the process of shaping and identifying in close consultation with my staff. I am committed to expanding the Museum’s accessibility to different groups, both locally and nationally. We are doing a great job ensuring that AANM is a welcoming place to people who historically may have been unwelcome at museums. We are exploring how best to reach out to Arab American communities that have been underrepresented in our exhibitions and our programming, and to acknowledge the changing demographics of our community. As a team, we are looking into how best to increase accessibility, whether through updating our exhibits or enhancing our digital presence and use of digital technology.

Q: How does a museum keep things fresh and relevant in this day and age?

A: It’s an exciting time to be working in the museum sector, which is undergoing a lot of change, mostly for the better. In recent years, there has been a shift in the way museums are oriented; to paraphrase Stephen Weil, museums are increasingly focused on connecting with and serving their communities in addition to “being about something” (that is, the objects and artifacts they collect, house, and display). Museums are being held accountable by the communities they serve; I’m referring here to the movements to “decolonize” museums, which addresses the historical relationship between American and European museums and the respective colonial projects.

Many museums are responding positively to these pressures, and rightly so. AANM is a new museum--we’re only 14 years old--so we don’t necessarily deal with those particular concerns, but we are focused on serving our community in ways that are relevant and meaningful to them. We don’t shy away from addressing some of the issues that affect the community we serve, whether the Arab American community or the larger metro Detroit community. We use arts and culture programming to talk about some difficult topics and to raise awareness about issues of social justice. I think we’ve been really successful at this because of our young, diverse and creative staff members who bring a lot of great and innovative ideas to the table. They have their hands on the pulse of what is important to their peers, and how American culture is changing.

Q: What are some of your initial impressions of Dearborn?

A: I’m loving it here, and I already feel pretty settled even though I’ve only been here for two months. Dearborn has been so welcoming to me. I’m excited to get to know my fellow Dearborn residents and to explore this wonderful city, as well as metro Detroit, further.

Q: What are some of your favorite Dearborn establishments so far?

A: I can’t get enough of Sheeba Restaurant on Michigan Avenue. I also love M Cantina on Michigan Ave. and Qahwa House on Schaeffer. If you like food, East Dearborn is brimming with excellent options. But I would be remiss if I didn’t claim the Arab American National Museum as my #1 favorite Dearborn establishment!

Read more articles by MJ Galbraith.

MJ Galbraith is a writer and musician living in Detroit. Follow him on Twitter @mikegalbraith.
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