United States, New York: The United States (US) may have seen an unprecedented anti-Muslim backlash in recent months, but one New York museum has challenged perceptions by teaching children about the wealth and diversity of Islamic culture. The Children’s Museum of Manhattan on the Upper West Side has been turned into an indoor playground where children can touch and experiment with artefacts of Muslim culture in a vibrant, colourful exhibition.
One little girl wraps a piece of Senegalese fabric around her middle like a sarong and wriggles around. She says, “It’s lots of fun for dancing!”. Other children in her class are sorting through Turkish ceramics or inhaling the rich aroma of spices from Zanzibar. Called America to Zanzibar, the exhibition focuses on culture in Muslim communities, not religion itself, so the tenets and practices of Islamic doctrine have been left well alone.
“We don’t interpret the religion,” said Andrew Ackerman, executive director of the museum. He added, “It’s about the people. It’s about how people that share a common belief express it so differently”. The 2016 race for the White House has been dominated by the rise of Republican front-runner Donald Trump, a New York real estate mogul who has repeatedly bashed Muslims and advocated a ban on them entering the country.
Recent attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California have heightened what Muslim Americans call an unprecedented backlash in a country increasingly fearful about the risk posed by the militant Islamic State group. Ackerman says current events had nothing to do with the decision to mount the exhibition, which has been six years in the making. His desire is to lift the lid on culture in Muslim countries that is either poorly understood in the United States or not represented at all.
“The challenge of this project is how do you represent so many different cultures,” said Ackerman. “How do you pick and choose what to show to give the biggest overview possible in a small space. That conversation was completely independent of any current events.” One strong point of the exhibition is that it also focuses on Muslim heritage in the United States and not just on far-off countries.