Sometimes it is the small exhibits in a museum that leave the largest impressions. The travelling exhibition Fighting for Democracy: Who is the ‘We’ in ‘We the People?’ is a fine example. Occupying the small basement inside the Arab American National Museum, the seven kiosks are filled with videos and photos, each documenting the lives of a different minority or woman who served during World War II.
What started as an experimental exhibition in Los Angeles by the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy, the education arm of the Japanese American National Museum, is now on stop eight of a 10-stop tour. Dearborn and the Arab American National Museum in particular seemed to be a logical stop for this exhibit.
Japanese Americans who were rounded up at gunpoint and forced into internment camps during World War II still remember the pain of those camps. Many of those survivors heard similar rhetoric expressed about Arab Americans after 9/11 that were said about them, and they have since been active in supporting the Arab American community.
“The Japanese American community has been supportive of us as a museum and of the Arab American community because that history of prejudice is still in the forefront of their minds, says Elizabeth Barrett Sullivan, curator of exhibitions for the Arab American National Museum.
Sharing this exhibit has been a part of that support. This exhibit also adds texture to an exhibit running concurrently at the Museum called Patriots and Peacemakers: Arab Americans In Service to our Country.
Cubes with pictures and stories of Arab Americans who have served America since the Revolutionary War line with walls of the Main Floor Gallery. Approximately 100 soldiers are featured, as well as 35 people who served in the Peace Corps and 30 who served in the Diplomatic Corps.
The message is simple, Arab Americans have played a key role in the history of America through their service to the country.
Response from the community has been positive.
“Everyone’s impressed with the way we’ve done it. Being able to include so many actual stories has been really well-received. It’s really good about highlighting the diversity of Arab Americans and stories about service,” Sullivan says.
In the center of the exhibit, the staff has created an honor garden of sorts as a way for people to share their stories or the stories of their family. It has led to staff discovering more stories to include when the exhibit begins traveling to other museums in Houston and Jacksonville, with other cities soon to be added. A smaller exhibit is being developed to travel to different military bases as well.
For Sullivan, being able to talk with some of the people who are featured on a cube has been personally gratifying. It is an experience she hopes people from around the country can share.