Most museums have signs that read “Do Not Touch the Exhibits” and serious security guards to enforce it. Not the Children’s Museum of Manhattan’s very popular experience of Muslim culture all over the world.
In “America to Zanzibar: Muslim Cultures Near and Far,” curators want you to use your senses to look, listen, touch, speak and smell, which is a spicy adventure. There’s plenty to do for children and the big kid in all of us.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, about two dozen tots and their parents or guardians engaged in all sorts of interesting activities.
On transportation, for example, a few children were on the deck of an Indian Ocean dhow (boat) while others were loading goods on land. Still others used a pulley to bring them on deck and remove them. Children were decorating a Pakistani truck for a pretend ride through the Western Himalayas. And if you weren’t in a hurry, you could sit atop a camel as some of the adults did.
In another section, you could go to market and find faux Indonesian fruits and vegetables and weigh them on a scale or learn about exotic coffees and teas or visit a Zanzibar fish market and select Egyptian spices.
Senegalese fabrics that can be found in New York City could be touched, the weaves of Moroccan rugs examined. Pieces of Turkish tiles are made into a puzzle so you can move them around.
One display has items of clothing and artifacts that can be found in American Muslim houses. Mixed in with blue jeans and sneakers is a hijab, a woman’s head covering.
A special section of the exhibit shows paintings of three mosques. Ellen Bari, the exhibit’s curator, challenged me to identify their locations and I was surprised to learn that one was from Michigan, which has a large Muslim population.
Then you can enter through a small opening, sit inside at a screen and select an area of the world, and a mosque from that region is displayed on a 21-foot curved screen in front of you.
It took two years, Bari said, to research “America to Zanzibar” and then four years, her time at the museum, to bring it to reality.
She took me to a musical section with buttons for instruments like ney, oud, rebana, ghijak, and tabla. They brought in musicians who play each to lay down a track and a child can play one, several or all in harmony by pressing a button.
While this display is not religious, per se, it helps children demystify the word “Muslim” and learn about all aspects of Muslim culture. The signage is mostly for the adult companions to explain to their child. As you enter, for example, a sign explains the origin of Islam as a religion and some basic tenets.
“America to Zanzibar” exhibit at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan
The 3,000-square-foot exhibit is the fourth in the museum’s Cultural Exhibition Series, following exhibits about Ancient Greece, China and Japan.
Religion was central to “The Monkey King” exhibit, which showed how Buddhism was brought to China, and “Gods, Myths and Mortals,” which explained democracy and the origin of Western civilization.
“We prepare children to become successful global citizens by offering fun, age-appropriate, experiences with the people and cultures of New York City and our interconnected world,” Deirdre Lurie, director of strategic communications, said.
A fountain in the center of the exhibit explains that wealthy residents often donate these to poorer neighborhoods so they have fresh, running water.
Now take a detour, especially on a hot day, outside to “Dynamic H20,” also curated by Bari, as children learn about New York City’s amazing water system and the importance of water to us all. They wear cool, waterproof aprons.
As I was leaving, I was reminded of comedian Aziz Ansari’s “Saturday Night Live” monologue the day after President Trump was sworn in. He said music from “Homeland” scares people. He then hummed the theme song to “The Benny Hill Show,” an old Brit comedy, a better tune to associate with Islam. He ended by saying that people would think, “Man, Islam is one whimsical religion, isn’t it?”
This children’s exhibit is precisely that – whimsical and fun.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Rev. Alexander Santora is the pastor of Our Lady of Grace and St. Joseph, 400 Willow Ave., Hoboken, 07030, FAX: 201-659-5833; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @padrehoboken.
If you go …
“America to Zanzibar: Muslim Cultures Near and Far” continues through Dec. 31 at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, The Tisch Building, 212 W. 83rd St., Manhattan; 212-721-1223. Summer hours are Sunday to Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Target Free First Friday Nights, 5-8pm. Child/adult admission, $14; seniors (65+) $11; children under 12 months admitted free!