The Please Touch Museum Explores Muslim Culture with ‘America to Zanzibar’
This immersive and ambitious new exhibit seeks to educate, create dialogue, and build bridges.
The Please Touch Museum’s latest special exhibit will celebrate modern and historic Muslim communities across the world—as well as in our own hometown. “America to Zanzibar: Muslim Cultures Near and Far” opens February 2 and runs through September 2—a noticeably longer time than most of the museum’s temporary exhibits—and engages children’s senses, imaginations, and empathy in fun and interactive ways.
As demonstrated with last spring’s temporary exhibit “Hello from Japan!” and the recent “Cents and Sensibility” financial literacy addition to the museum’s permanent collection, this latest offering from the Please Touch Museum signals their continued understanding of today’s children growing up in a more interconnected and diverse world. “The hosting of ‘America to Zanzibar’ at PTM is grounded in the belief that understanding other cultures is a way to promote acceptance and expand one’s world view,” explains Patricia Wellenbach, president and CEO of Please Touch Museum.
The exhibit is also beautiful, immediately more visually mature and complex than what you may expect from a children’s museum. Whether you are trading spices at the souk or reflecting in the prayer room, the experience is rich, immersive, challenging, and of course fun. It is divided into different areas of life—commerce, home life, art and religion–and each sphere balances aesthetics, information, and hands-on opportunities (plus lots of photo ops along the way).
Trade and the Global Marketplace
The most exciting section is probably the marketplace, which shows both the means of trade (a dhow on the Indian Ocean, a camel on the Silk Road, a Pakistani truck) as well as the diverse and colorful goods involved.
Kids can ride on the camel, steer and decorate the truck, or climb aboard and “sail” the multilevel dhow and unload its goods with a pulley system (this seemed to be the most popular activity when we visited).
In the global marketplace, various countries with Muslim populations are represented with their own unique goods and activities. You can weigh and smell spices in Egypt, weave and sell rugs in Morocco, try on Senegalese fashion in a New York shop, and more. While the kids’ senses are engaged and their hands are busy, quotes and facts about the countries appear on wall graphics for those who want to learn more.
Home Life and Personal Stories
The courtyard in the middle of the main room shows off intricate architectural details, and also provides a place to play at low tables. Coupled with the grandeur are more in depth social and creative prompts. The fountain in the middle of the area is not simply aesthetic, but opens a discussion about access to clean water, charity, and community. Inspired by the design details, kids can make their own mosaics out of Magnatiles, or listen to different musical instruments from around the world. Another table asks kids to consider how, like “one drop of water, one act of kindness… can make a difference,” and how they can take small steps to make the world a better place.
It is moments like this—and so many throughout the exhibit—that show an effort to reach children of different ages. While the two-year-olds have fun with a pretend tea party, their older siblings can tackle those more mature questions.
In addition to the courtyard, home life is explored in the next room, where objects from Muslim American homes have been loaned to the museum by local residents, along with their personal stories. From different pairs of shoes, to a prayer rug, to protest literature, to a Barbie doll of Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, the diversity of experiences and lives of Muslim America are on display in real and relatable ways.
“As a community, we are excited to share our religion, our lifestyle and our everyday existence with our friends, colleagues and neighbors,” said Salima Suswell, who led the community advisory council made up of more than two dozen local Muslim community leaders that the museum appointed to make sure the exhibit is both authentic and sensitive to Muslim culture. “Philadelphia is a place where Islam is so entrenched in the regional culture, but still mysterious to some. This exhibit allows for populations who have always had questions the courage and opportunity to ask in a recreational and learning environment.”
Art, Religion, and Philadelphia Connections
In addition to gathering stories and personal items from local residents, the Please Touch Museum further customized “America to Zanzibar” with newly commissioned artwork created by Philadelphia-based Muslim artists, displayed in a gallery-like setting. Throughout the exhibit’s run, the artists-in-residence plan to visit the museum to discuss their work, and lead art activities in the Creative Arts Studio downstairs as well!
Tied in with art is architecture, and both are linked to religion as visitors can explore mosques around the world in an amazing touchscreen-driven 360-degree station that lets you pick a place on a map, and then brings you inside that location’s mosque to explore. Behind this station, kids can sit at a lighted table and try their own hand at drawing and tracing the architectural details.
Finally, there is the option to visit and reflect in a prayer room—another addition that Please Touch Museum has added to the traveling exhibit. The prayer room is open at specific times (a schedule is posted on the door), and in keeping with tradition, guests must remove their shoes to enter. Prayer rugs are on hand to borrow, and art adorns the walls of this peaceful corner.
The museum has special events and programming planned to complement the new exhibit, including storytelling, theater shows, performances, art activities, and much more. Local author Ameenah Muhammed-Diggins will bring her book Bashirah and the Amazing Bean Pie to the stage, with a play about embracing what makes us special and finding connections bigger than differences. You can catch it through March 10, and it will return in May.
Want to try bean pie for yourself? You can get this sweet treat in the Please Touch Museum’s café during the exhibit’s run, thanks to Brûlée Catering. In addition to the bean pie, you can also get the first Halal dish to be offered at the café– chicken and rice in the style of street food, with spicy red harissa sauce and white yogurt sauce. Both menu additions really elevate the fare from go-to kiddie choices like chicken fingers and hot dogs (don’t worry, they’ll still have all that too!), and allow guests to experience the exhibit using yet another sense.
“Our culinary team at Brûlée Catering has long been attuned to diverse lifestyles and dietary restrictions when developing menus,” Kate Wilkin, general manager, said. “We saw the ‘America to Zanzibar’ exhibit as a great opportunity to offer traditional dishes to the Muslim families that visit the museum.”
Be sure to check the museum’s schedule to stay up to date on even more upcoming happenings centered around the special exhibit.
“America to Zanzibar” runs from February 2 — September 2, and is free with museum admission and for museum members. The Please Touch Museum is located at 4231 Avenue of the Republic in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park.
Photographs by Laura Swartz.