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A Cultural Embassy in Washington, DC

The Museum of the Palestinian People

By Julia Pitner

In his 1999 essay “Invention, Memory, and Place,” Edward Said wrote that places are not simply geographical locations, they are also imbued with layers of history, personal experiences, and cultural narratives that shape their meaning and significance. The Palestinian collective memory of shared history, culture, and experience plays a crucial role in collective identities and allows people to weave together personal experiences, historical events, and cultural symbols to create a cohesive narrative about their identity.

At its core, the Museum of the Palestinian People aims to reveal the layers of history, personal experience, and culture through the careful curation of its permanent and temporary exhibits. The space invites visitors to experience the journey and explore their understanding of Palestine as they interact with the museum’s Palestinian-American volunteer guides who share their experience and knowledge. Since its opening in 2019, close to 10,000 people from across the United States and abroad have visited the Museum of the Palestinian People – some of whom brought their own stories while others had no prior involvement with Palestine.

In the age of social media and easily accessible information, it is frequently surprising how little the average American knows about the Palestinian people. In the mainstream media, stories about Palestinians are often distorted or minimized through the lenses of victims or violence. If journalists try to present a fuller picture, they tend to be threatened, accused, and challenged, as are university professors and teachers who try to teach Palestinian history – even if their approach connects it with Israel’s history.

Body Cam by Ernest. The artwork is part of the Freedom is One exhibit at the museum in 2021.

Engaging with many organizations that are involved in activism and advocacy for Palestine and that aim to raise awareness of the issues that face the Palestinian people, the museum adds another layer. It tells stories that encompass the rich history and vibrant arts and culture of a people who thrive even in the face of adversity.

Bullet by Mohammad Sabaaneh from the Freedom is One exhibit.

As Bshara Nassar, the museum’s founder, has said, “We want to share our story from our perspective: who we are, where we come from. For too long, our story has been told by others who want to portray us, often in negative stereotypes. We want to share with the world who the Palestinian people truly are.” Such a declaration of identity is not only a form of expression but also a form of resilience and an act of resistance. And Palestinians have known for some time that this is the strongest form of soft power.

External view of the museum.

Located in the heart of Washington, DC, the Museum of the Palestinian People is dedicated to showcasing and preserving the history and culture that has evolved and thrived over centuries.

Historically, art and culture have provided an opportunity to share perspectives that differ from the mainstream story. This has been true worldwide for communities that are under pressure, not heard, and/or displaced. As the renowned Palestinian-American artist Samia Halaby noted, “Art is a symptom of society, giving insight into society’s progression through political and economic stages. The thinking cuts like a knife through issue-driven politics.” Art and culture create a safe space for deeper discussions.

Iyad and George, in memory of Iyad Hallaq.

In the United States, Palestinians have used the arts and culture as a means to claim, share, and preserve their heritage, even as others try to erase or appropriate the Palestinian narrative and heritage. Such engagement began in the 1970s and 1980s, when revolutionary movements were at their peak globally and many anti-colonialist movements found common causes. Shared struggles and solidarity impacted visual artists, poets, musicians, and activists, each influencing the other in their respective efforts and artistic statements.

An example is the poetry of George Jackson, entitled Enemy of the Sun, which was known and published under George Jackson’s name but later discovered to have been greatly influenced by the Palestinian poet Samih Al Qasem. African American rap and hip-hop art, born out of situational resistance, were the inspiration for the Palestinian music group Dam (“Everlasting” in Arabic), the first Palestinian hip-hop group and the first to utilize rap in its music. In addition, scholars such as Angela Davis, Cornell West, and Marc Lamont Hill, among others, inspired artists and other movements to engage in the Palestinian struggle. The same issues that brought Palestinian and Black activists together in dialogue in the 1960s and 1970s are still valid and relevant to both struggles today.

Black Lives Matter by Lina Abujarede.

The common fight for social justice intersected with the African American community and was showcased in an exhibition by Palestinian artists in response to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police and Iyad al-Hallak’s death in Jerusalem in a similar attack. The museum’s exhibition brought together a spectrum of artworks by Black and Palestinian artists who connected through the themes of political and resistance art in various forms, symbols, and mediums. The artistic expressions of solidarity in seeking social justice, paired with speeches by members of the Black American and Palestinian American communities, exposed the commonalities of experience between the two communities. It also underscored a primary mission of the Museum of the Palestinian People, namely to “create a space where people are not marginalized by the artificial distinctions we use to create borders between us.”

The Art of Weeping by Mary Hazboun.

Today, throughout the country, there are Palestinian American festivals held each year in various cities to celebrate Palestinian music, food, dance, and film. They also provide a forum to continue to share about Palestine at personal and human levels. These cultural events create a “safe” environment to experience different perspectives that challenge and “cut like a knife through the issue-driven politics” of the mainstream narrative that adopts and promotes the “victim-violence” lens with which most Americans are most familiar. Importantly, this movement has also provided the Palestinian community an opportunity to artistically share common threads of their stories with the general American public.

Intersections by Mohammad Sabaaneh.

The importance of the arts in the reclamation of a nation’s narrative and assertion of identity and existence has been growing in the United States among “invisible” or marginalized communities such as First Nations and Black Americans. The Native American Museum and the African American Museum, like the Museum of the Palestinian People, are institutions dedicated to educating the general public about their people’s rich history. The use of multimedia artistic forums has enriched the public’s understanding of the history and cultural contributions of these communities. Their stories share common threads with the Palestinian struggle for justice, recognition of identity, and freedom. Giving these causes expression through the arts, culture, and heritage is an act of resistance and a powerful statement of existence.

The Museum of the Palestinian People achieves this goal through thoughtfully curated exhibits and the stories of the Palestinian Americans who volunteer to guide visitors through the collections of artifacts, textiles, maps, documents, paintings, photos, and videos that make up its permanent collection – each telling their own part of the story. This is augmented by special events with visiting artists and curators whose work highlights the richness of Palestinian cultural history and provokes a more enlightened understanding of the intersectionality and reclamation of heritage. The most common reaction of museum visitors is that they “learned a lot” in this “small but powerful space.”

Tatreez Inheritance and the book Thobna.

In the most recent exhibit, titled Tatreez Inheritance, curated by Wafa Ghnaim, an expert in Palestinian traditional dress, the thobes (dresses) from before and after 1948 on display expressed the history and traditions of the Palestinian people. The use of questions along the way – how did these dresses come to the United States, and who are the “once known” creators of these pieces – gave thoughtful pause to visitors. It presented tatreez (embroidery) as a living art form inherited by all Palestinians, one that preserves the stories, past and present. It was also a call to action for the reclamation of material culture and art history to preserve a nation’s identity.

The previous exhibit, The Art of Weeping, by Mary Hazboun, was the first to be held following the COVID shutdown. The exhibition served as a creative and political platform in which the curator used art as a medium for resistance to reclaim her Palestinian identity and narrative in exile, linking the geopolitics of both places and aiming to bring forward the unheard voices of Palestinian women and their complex stories of living under occupation or in the diaspora. Presented as a series of black ink on white paper, the artistic expression captured the sorrow with symbols of resistance and resilience in controlled, detailed strokes.

Tatreez Inheritance Exhibit.

With the identity of Jerusalem under threat, the upcoming exhibit, Huna Al Quds (Here Is Jerusalem), curated by Rula Dughman, will showcase the city’s rich social and cultural life in the early 1900s. Through artistic works, photographs, video, and audio material that give testimony to a flourishing society’s lifestyle, the viewers will discover that the land was full of life and livelihoods – countering the trope that the land was empty and offering a reaffirmation of Palestinian identity.

The idea of the museum started with a traveling exhibit of two artworks about refugees. Today, they have a permanent home in the facilities in Washington, DC. To “keep talking about Palestine” remains as important today as it was decades ago. Educating people about Palestinians, starting with what they know or believe, and enriching their knowledge through arts, culture, and stories is an essential part of the struggle. This is the ultimate power of art and culture. To quote Samia Halaby, “[A]rt is a flowering of society. It’s not the other way around.”

  • Julia Pitner currently serves as director of programs and operations at the Museum of the Palestinian People and is a contributing editor for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. Holding degrees in political science and Middle East history, she has lived in Palestine and worked for several years with civil society, human rights, and media organizations.

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