In the basement of an unremarkable building at 1516 E. Lake Street in Minneapolis, a small former office suite houses what may be the world’s largest Somali museum.
The Somali Artifact and Cultural Museum opened in October. Since then, hundreds of visitors have examined its collection of elaborately carved vessels, woven rugs, weapons, drums and other objects handcrafted by Somali nomads.
The assemblage is largely the work of one man, Minneapolis restaurateur Osman Ali, who gathers items on his frequent trips to Somalia. Ali is saving pieces of an ancient way of life that is rapidly vanishing, a casualty of the chaos generated in the country’s civil war and the inevitable encroachment of modernity.
“I believe that if we don’t do something today, everything might disappear,” Ali said. “I collect to preserve this culture for the new generations and all communities.”
Ali began snapping up artifacts in 2009 after hearing that the collection at the National Museum of Somalia in Mogadishu had been plundered and dispersed. (In view of that destruction, Ali figures his museum in the Twin Cities — home of the country’s largest Somali community, roughly 32,000 people — is probably the biggest.)
Meanwhile, daily life is changing in Somalia, with cheap plastic imports replacing traditional tools handmade from wood and animal hide. Ali worries that the traditional ways are being forgotten.
“The elders, they know. The young people, they don’t.”
Though not always in the face of imminent crisis, ethnic museums throughout Minnesota were established for reasons similar to Ali’s — a desire to hang onto memories of how a people lived.
Whether early inhabitants or recent immigrants, ethnic groups have always “felt the necessity to preserve a sense of who they are,” said David Grabitske, manager of outreach services for the Minnesota Historical Society. “That’s really what history organizations are about in the first place. They’re about preserving today for tomorrow.”
He said he knows of places or collections that preserve American Indian, Swedish, German, Finnish, Norwegian, Jewish, Romanian, Serbian, Croatian, Czech, Polish, Luxembourgian and Hmong culture. Not all have dedicated buildings; in some cases, cultural artifacts are held in community centers or elsewhere.
Often the line blurs between ethnic and historical museums. Several years ago, the Kandiyohi County Historical Museum conducted an oral history project involving the Hispanic community in Willmar, “which is very large and very influential. … They’ve been there for generations,” Grabitske said.
Like the Somali Museum, the Bois Forte Heritage Museum in Tower began in 2001 to save relics from being scattered and lost. Pieces belonging to members of the Bois Forte Band of Ojibwe had been stored for generations in distant institutions, where they were mingled indiscriminately with items belonging to tribes around the country.
Back in the 19th century, museum organizations thought that “at some time in the future there would be no more Native Americans,” said Rose Berens, director of the Bois Forte museum. “They bought or traded or stole items and took them back to museums. But lo and behold, there still are Native Americans, and we want those items back.”
A 1990 federal law required that they be returned. Museums periodically distribute lists of articles so tribes can try to determine which, if any, belonged to their ancestors.
“If there’s something there that we can get a picture of, we show it to elders and talk to them about it,” Berens said. “If there’s any inkling that it’s not ours, we won’t take it.”