The Children’s Museum of Manhattan’s Global Cultural Exhibition Series is back! The program, which celebrates the diversity of cultural expression throughout the world, is part of the museum’s efforts to nurture the next generation of global citizens. Previous shows have helped visitors explore the cultures of Ancient Greece, China, and Japan, and its latest exhibit, “America to Zanzibar: Muslim Cultures Near and Far,” is a timely showcase of the cultural expressions of Muslim communities both close to home in NYC and around the world.
An Cultural Introduction Based in Play
The exhibit features 3,000-square-feet of space filled with family-friendly, hands-on experiences designed to engage the senses and appeal to a wide variety of learning styles and ages. (The museum recommends the show for kids ages two to 10.) Developed with leading humanities scholars, America to Zanzibar exposes kids to Muslim art, architecture and culture as it is expressed in communities throughout the globe through arts and every day activities.
To Market to Market
A hallway featuring original artwork by local American Muslim artists leads visiting families into a Global Market, filled with multiple stalls housing fun things to touch, weigh, handle and even smell. There’s the Zanzibar fishing area, stocked with unique poles you can use to magnetically hook the day’s catch, and Egyptian spices in woven bags that can be weighed on working, child-sized, scales. Visitors can also cloak themselves in the colorful Senegalese cloth made by immigrant tailors in uptown Manhattan, have a tea party like they do in Tajikistan, and even push a button to sniff the fragrance of (plastic) Indonesian fruits. For those familiar with the museum’s permanent offerings, think of this is as the Dora and Diego area – Muslim-style!
Welcome Home (s)
Next up, kids can explore variations on Muslim homes. A reproduction of an American home features a living room filled with pieces donated by American Muslims, including art, children’s books, computers, clothing and unique objects. Visitors can also learn to write and say “My name is…” in the 21 languages spoken by NYC’s Muslim community, see works by emerging local American Muslim artists and follow the history of Muslims in the U.S. through a visual timeline.
In another area, visitors are transported to a traditional Persian courtyard, where they can write down how they would make the world a better place and toss it in a symbolic (it’s waterless) fountain. Other activities include creating music with a virtual orchestra of instruments like the drum-like tabla; playing a matching game based on local geometric patterns and designs, or building your own holy temple with some blocks.
Trade Through the Ages
Next, it’s time to hit the high-seas, the desert and more in a section dedicated to cultural exchange over time and across continents. Kids can follow an ancient trade route and captain a multi-level Indian Ocean dhow (boat) big enough to easily fit a dozen excited preschoolers; mount a Pakistani truck and steer it to parts unknown (while remaining safely within Mom and Dad’s sight the entire time, and even climb atop a life-size model of a camel.
The Art of Architecture
The most jaw-dropping section of the exhibit is the dimly-lit Architecture room. Here, visitors can pick a spot on a spinning globe and a panoramic image of mosque designed in the architectural style of that location is projected on to a 21-foot curved screen, bringing the building to life in front of you! (So cool, though not for those prone to vertigo.) Kids can also copy ancient designs onto a sheet of paper to create their own edifices based on classic mosques from around the world.
It’s a Family Affair
Unlike many CMOM exhibits (such as the aforementioned Dora and Diego), America to Zanzibar is not the kind of attraction where a child can simply roam free and absorb its significance. Sure, they can build blocks, pretend to serve tea, catch fish, handle ceramic replicas, climb the camel and run shrieking up and down the length of the dhow — and they will have a terrific time. But if you want them to pick up a little cultural sensitivity and learning, you are going to need to be there along the way, reading the signs to them, demonstrating how some of the hands-on activities work, and explaining why all of these new sights, sounds and smells are relevant to their lives.
And that’s intentional. The words and concepts on signage throughout the exhibit is a bit more challenging than usual so that parents will be moved to participate – and maybe even learn something themselves. (In fact, although America to Zanzibar is listed as being designed for children ages 2-10, David Rios, Director of Public Programs at the museum, predicts that high school and even college students might be coming by to explore what the show has to offer.)
Plus: Special Events, Classes and School Vaca To-Dos!
As part of the grand opening of the exhibit, CMOM will be hosting a Muslim Arts Festival featuring dance, music, calligraphy, weaving and more on three separate occasions from February to April.
There will also be Drop In and Sign Up classes throughout the entire public school Midwinter Recess focusing on dance, storytelling and ceramics.
Additionally, for the duration of the exhibit’s run (currently scheduled through at least this time next year) regular daily demos in the America to Zanzibar gallery will highlight topics like spicy tastes and smells, designing a courtyard, Moroccan rug installations, and navigation by reading the stars. Tours for schools and community groups are also available.
America to Zanzibar: Muslim Cultures Near and Far
Children’s Museum of Manhattan
212 West 83rd St.
Upper West Side
Will you be visiting America to Zanzibar? Let us know in the comments below!
— Alina Adams