Osman Ali’s dream to establish a unique showcase of Somali art and life came to life Saturday in a Minneapolis storefront with the opening of a museum five years in the making.
Ali, a Minneapolis restaurant owner, has painstakingly collected more than 700 items — including paintings, jewelry, weapons, woven rugs and hand-carved wooden bowls and tea sets. About half of them are now on display at the Somali Artifact and Culture Museum, which had its grand opening at 1516 E. Lake St. The museum is the only one of its kind in North America.
The grand opening drew a mix on Somalis and non-Somalis who made their way through the museums’s five rooms, each with its own theme. The collection is a mix of pure art — like paintings of nomadic life and photos of Mogadishu — and functional items, like containers for water and milk made of bark and animal skins.
“Osman calls this one the ‘War and Peace room,’ ” said outreach director Sarah Larsson, walking into one room with weapons on one side and musical instruments on the other. One wall is lined with spears, bows and arrows. A small, innocent-looking leather pouch is a “poison pouch” used to coat arrow tips, Larsson said. Large goatskin-topped drums filled up a corner of the other side of the room, which also contains a display whose items include a delicate traditional lyre.
Larsson said she has helped Ali catalog the items. “We’re still working on it. We wanted to get open and make this available to the community,” she said.
Ali said he decided to create the museum in part to preserve artifacts that were being destroyed amid the turmoil in his native country. That’s especially the case for nomadic artifacts, which also are being lost as more Somalis abandon that lifestyle and migrate to cities, he said.
The idea of bringing the artifacts to Minneapolis came out of his desire to teach younger Somalis the story of nomadic life in Somalia. He collected many of the items on five trips to Somalia, starting in 2009 when he returned to visit his ailing father.
“The rest came from other people, including friends, who are still there,” Ali said. He went on local radio and TV stations in Somalia and announced his museum project. “I asked them to collect for me and send the items by cargo.”
Before establishing the museum as a permanent home for the artifacts, Ali had shown his collection at local libraries and schools. Now he hopes the museum can be a place where parents and teachers can bring Somali-American children to reclaim their heritage and non-Somali children to learn more about the country. His goal is to be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. The museum is being staffed by volunteers.
Abdirahim Mohamed, a friend of Ali’s, said he decided to become a volunteer to help younger Somalis learn about some of the things he left behind as a child when he emigrated to the United States with his family. He said seeing many of the items now has brought back memories.
“I see these things, and it makes me proud,” Mohamed said. “I want other people to come away from seeing them with the same feeling.”