Week 19: America’s Islamic Heritage Museum


Organization and museum mission: Our purpose and mission as an organization is to shed light on the depth, diversity, growth, and history of Muslim Americans, plus to serve as a resource center for the history, enrichment, knowledge, and understanding of Muslim Americans. Muslims and Islam have been a part of the American fabric for centuries. It is part of the many threads of culture, colors, religions, and lifestyles that make up the American pluralistic quilt.

Museums come in all shapes (literally) and sizes. Some of my Weekly Museum Visit sites have had multi-building campuses, soaring atria, or extensive gardens and grounds. Others have to pack as much as they can into a tiny space.

America’s Islamic Heritage Museum (founded and maintained by the organization Collections and Stories of Muslim Americans) opened just under two years ago in a small building in Anacostia that used to house a Muslim school. Accordingly, almost every room and hallway is used as exhibit space. In one small corridor, objects and exhibit panels are situated inside student lockers, highlighting the history of the Clara Muhammad School that used to be there. Even the restrooms have informative text, with prayers written out that are said when entering and exiting the restrooms and when hand-washing. While these particular signs might be vestiges from the building’s school days, the text is certainly relevant to the museum’s content and informative to museum visitors.

Overall, however, the museum is less about theology than about the legacy of Muslim Americans, from the beginnings of European settlement of the Americas through the present. Though there is a collection of Korans in different languages, most of the exhibit space focuses on topics like early American census records that list Muslim names, photographs of mosques around the US, and figures such as Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali.

America's Islamic Heritage Museum

America’s Islamic Heritage Museum

Sometimes, whether it’s a large or small museum, there’s one particular object that strikes me most. In this case, it was a United States Army uniform with the name Muhammad on it. It is such a simple object, yet so powerful in challenging stereotypes and assumptions. Other interesting displays include a 1945 newspaper article describing how Islam’s focus on racial equality and inclusiveness was attracting black Americans, stamps featuring Muslims who fought in the Revolutionary War, and panels about recent presidents’ outreach to diverse faiths including Islam. Here is a quote from Ronald Reagan expounding upon a quote from George Washington:

In America, Jew, Christian, Muslim, believers of all kinds, and nonbelievers, too – as George Washington wrote to a Jewish congregation in Rhode Island – each “shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig-tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

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March’s blog theme is Museums and Fighting Inequality.

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About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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