America to Zanzibar; From New York to Philly
By Amanda Lampel
Traveling exhibits don’t often follow you — it’s usually the other way around. Yet, I found myself in this situation as I moved to Philadelphia to become an Education Program Coordinator at the Please Touch Museum. I had previously worked at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, where I first encountered the exhibit America to Zanzibar: Muslim Cultures Near and Far. What I had once known to be an inanimate collection of objects and interactives had become a living, breathing exhibit, transforming to fit its new home.
America to Zanzibar debuted at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan (CMOM) in 2016. At the time, it was a groundbreaking exhibit that examined the beautiful diversity of Muslim cultures around the world through both historical and contemporary lenses. It prompted children, along with their caregivers and teachers, to explore understanding, acceptance, and appreciation for cultures different from our own and to recognize the similar threads that bind the cultures of our world.
When I arrived at the Please Touch Museum and learned that we would soon be getting the same exhibit, I was excited to discover America to Zanzibar through a new lens — that of my new home. I began to see Philadelphia in a totally different way. Until I saw the statistics, I didn’t truly understand how deeply embedded Islam is in the cultural fabric of the city. As departments across the museum began to prepare for the exhibit, we all learned so much more about what had been in front of us the entire time. Roughly 10 percent of the Philadelphia regional population identifies as Muslim, and our city is home to nearly 200,000 Muslims and over 50 mosques.
To make the exhibit a true reflection of our city, Please Touch had to make some changes based on the Philadelphia cultural experience. CMOM requires each city to hire local artists-in-residence to make art that reflects the exhibit’s new home and to host art-making workshops over the duration of the exhibit. We found our artists in Keisha Whatley and Bariq Cobbs — two very different artists who both embody the ethos of America to Zanzibar. Having artworks on display harkens back to Memorial Hall’s original use as the art gallery for the Centennial Exhibition of 1876. The artworks also instill the exhibition with an undeniably human element. Both artists’ works reflect the diversity of the Muslim experience, on both local and global scales, through portraiture. Although she is not Muslim herself, Whatley worked with Muslim children in Philadelphia to get a sense of Islam through their eyes. Her naturalistic portraits incorporate beautiful and intricate figures decorated with symbols and imagery that represent some of the many facets of Islam. Cobbs, who grew up in Philadelphia and identifies as Muslim, utilized his family’s experience to paint a deeply personal trio of paintings that reflect his personal connection to the city and to his faith. As he is both an artist and a fashion designer, his work reflects a deep respect for clothing and how what we wear serves as a marker of identity.
We also borrowed objects from the Free Library of Philadelphia and the Penn Museum to infuse authentic objects into the experience of the exhibit. Beautiful ceramic tiles, illuminated manuscripts, and a Quran are on display and provide children, their caregivers, and teachers an opportunity to experience original artworks, perhaps for the first time.
One of the most exciting elements of the exhibit is an interactive that allows you to explore the architecture of mosques around the world. The interactive comes loaded with 360-degree images of mosques in Mecca, Mali, China, and more. Before debuting at Please Touch, the company that designed the interactive added a mosque in Germantown. Now, this mosque will be represented as America to Zanzibar travels to its next stops in Chicago and beyond.
The most dramatically different part of the exhibit is not necessarily a change, but rather, an addition. As the exhibit began to take shape in the minds of the Please Touch Museum’s staff, there arose a unique need for a prayer room to accommodate the audiences we sought to bring in. The prevalence of Islam was what spurred our museum to bring the exhibit to Philadelphia, and we could not ignore that practicing Muslims need a comfortable and safe space to pray. If we were going to invite this demographic into our museum, we had to acknowledge their needs in order to really let them in. The need to pray was a unique accessibility issue that we were proud to take on, and we transformed a space adjacent to the exhibition galleries into a prayer room. We set aside an area to take off and store shoes and provided prayer rugs. We also decorated the space with a piece of collaborative art depicting the wudu and salam (Islamic prayer customs) that teaching artist Ameerah Khabir created with visitors during our Eid Family Festival in June 2018. By setting aside a safe space that addresses their unique needs, we learned that a small gesture can go a long way.
The mission of the Please Touch Museum is to change a child’s life as they discover the power of learning through play. With this exhibit focused on diversity that reaches such a young audience, we are acknowledging that, in order to build a more unified world, we’ve got to start young. Research shows that by 3 to 6 years of age, children begin to understand stereotypes and become sensitive to both positive attitudes and negative biases attached to these aspects of identity. By highlighting Muslim cultures in a lens of beauty and positivity, we hope to normalize diversity and prepare children to participate in a global community of people who work, play, and live in an increasingly interconnected and interdependent 21st century world. We hope that you will join us for a behind-the-scenes look at this exhibit. Register now for the program, which is taking place on Thursday May 16th at 6 pm.