As a teacher of teenagers and a parent of toddlers, scouting museums has become a central activity in my life. A little learning, a little entertainment, a little stimulation, a little fun, a little awe of nature, a little taste of history. During midwinter break this year, my wife and I trundled the little ones into the Children’s Museum of Manhattan. An earlier trip impressed us with the quality of the exhibits. The kiddies were entertained and full of curiosity about what they had learned and observed.
In particular we enjoyed the ground floor exhibit. It was an adorable, fully operational Manhattan-themed play center that taught children about the hustle and bustle of urban life. This time back we were shocked the entire exhibit was closed. The sign on the door proclaimed: “Please pardon the inconvenience while we install ‘America to Zanzibar: Muslim Cultures Near and Far’. Opening Feb. 13th”.
The entire museum is comprised of four floors, with each floor devoted to a single exhibit. The other exhibits are a Dora the Explorer safari adventure, a “Frolic” gymnasium room, and a “PlayWorks” exhibit designed to emphasize literacy, math, and other critical learning components. The Manhattan exhibit rounded out the experience and clearly did not need replacing.
There is no mention of culture on any of the floors and no other cultures are presented or taught. Yet now, from 2016-2018, visitors will learn about Islam around the world, to the exclusion of any other culture or religion.
It is laudable for children, including mine, to learn about cultures from around the world. However, how does an exhibit solely about Muslim cultures around the world, presented without context, become a full 25% of the curriculum? Where is the Jewish exhibit, the Christian exhibit, the world culture exhibit? Are my kids to learn that the world consists of Dora the Explorer, firemen, and Muslim children?
Why would a prominent museum in our nation’s most prominent city make a clearly political, agenda-driven decision to create a hyper-specific Muslim exhibit with no plan to present other cultures? Had they modeled an exhibit after Disney’s “It’s a Small World” amusement park ride, presenting cultures from around the globe, that would be understandable.
Going online to the museum’s own website confirmed my fears. The exhibit description begins: “Travel the world in a single museum visit! Enjoy innovative hands-on experiences and discover fascinating objects, images and information from over 50 countries.” Fifty countries, sure — but only through the prism of Islam and mosques across the world!
Later in the blurb the museum claims that this is a continuation of its “Cultural Exhibition and Programming Series” in which earlier exhibits had included Ancient Greece and “Monkey King: A Story from China.”
So an exhibit about Greek gods and another about a monkey (that lasted for 6 months) have apparently provided enough general culture that it was time to tour world Islam with nary a mention of any other cultures. And worse, this exhibit and the weekly Muslim Art Festivals are to be the only culture presented for the next three years. Why would we teach kids about Muslim art and about mosque architecture from “Michigan to China” (as the website states), without showing them a single church or synagogue? How is this not either a) a larger, multi-cultural exhibit or b) a short-term exhibit as part of a larger series about various cultures past and present?
The answer, sadly, is all too predictable: money. Despite collecting $12 per child and adult upon each visit, the museum is apparently after far larger sums. Astoundingly, pressing “Click Here for Sponsorship and Support Opportunities” reveals that the America to Zanzibar exhibit has raised $1.25 million in funds but that the museum needs another $250,000 to fully fund the exhibition.
Really?? So $1.5 million in Manhattan could buy you a luxury apartment, or one single-floor exhibit in a museum. The list of contributors and donors to the display includes $250,000 from the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art and $25,000 from the Violet Jabara Trust, which makes grants to “American organizations which promote deeper understanding of Middle East issues and culture in the United States.”
Clearly, this exhibit is a cash cow for the museum and a PR piece for the private powerbrokers behind it. That is enough to make this daddy and teacher cynical about the integrity of our museums. I truly hope someone out there with $1.5 million in loose change buys them out soon and replaces the exhibit. After all, I’d rather visit the “Donald Trump is a Winner” exhibition any day.