The Minnesota History Center will throw open the doors to “Somalis + Minnesota” in June, the first long-term exhibit about the east African nation’s culture, heritage and diaspora at the state’s premier history museum.
Minnesota is home to the largest Somali population in the United States, and their stories need to be told, said Steve Elliott, CEO of the Minnesota Historical Society, which operates the History Center. The U.S. Census reports the Somali population in Minnesota at 57,000, though the actual number is believed to be much higher.
“With Somali people in almost every sector of Minnesota’s workforce, now is the time to celebrate the strength and resilience of the Somali people and to help build bridges in understanding what it means to be an immigrant,” Elliott said.
The exhibit is being created in partnership with the Somali Museum of Minnesota, which opened on Lake Street in Minneapolis in 2013.
“We see this as a big honor,” said Osman Mohamed Ali, founder of the Somali Museum. “The Somali community is proud that they will have their stories told at the Minnesota History Center.”
Ali said Minnesotans are curious about their neighbors’ history and that there’s a need in the Somali community to teach the younger generation about their heritage. Many Somalis arrived in Minnesota as refugees fleeing civil war, and families have been more focused on rebuilding their lives than exploring family histories.
“There are a lot of Somalis who don’t know their history,” Ali said. “It will be educational for all Minnesotans — whether they are Somali-Americans or non-Somali-Americans.”
Kate Roberts, an exhibit developer at the Minnesota History Center, said the staff hopes the exhibit attracts a new audience. And for regular History Center patrons, she said, “Here is a chance to tell some great stories we haven’t told yet.”
A nation of poets
The 2,400-square-foot exhibit will start with samples of 4,000-year-old cave art and ancient burial structures and move forward through time. It will include hundreds of objects and artifacts, including a portable home used by nomadic families, carved wooden milk containers, hand-woven mats and a loom.
The exhibit also will explore the political history of the region, from a 14th-century explorer’s descriptions of Mogadishu as a vibrant urban trading port with an organized government to 19th-century colonization by Great Britain, Italy and France.
“Somalis were trading with the ancient Egyptians during the times of the pharaohs,” said Sarah Larsson, outreach and development director at the Somali Museum. “The coastal cities of Somalia were huge bustling trade ports. They were celebrated in writings of European and Arab traders.”
The exhibit pays special attention to the people’s nomadic history, which Larsson compared with pioneer history in America.
“People in Somalia and East Africa come from really diverse backgrounds, but nomadic history is still a celebrated part of the national history,” she said.
A hands-on activity will teach exhibit visitors how to load a camel for travel across the desert.
“It seems everyone has a camel story,” Roberts said. “We kept hearing over and over again there are a million-and-one uses for camels.”
The fact that many Somalis arrived here as refugees, leaving behind photos and cultural items, posed one of the biggest challenges in assembling the exhibit, Roberts said. But Somalia has a strong oral tradition, and those stories are helping to shape the exhibit.
“Somalia is known as a nation of poets,” she said.
The History Center and Somali Museum have brought over more than 120 items from Africa for the exhibit, including a family’s nomadic home from northeast Somalia. Four Somali women who grew up in the nomadic tradition are directing museum staffers in cleaning and erecting the structure, and the History Center is hiring Somali staffers to work at the exhibit.
The exhibit will delve into more recent history, including the establishment in 1960 of the independent Somali Republic, which fell during a 1969 military takeover. That government collapsed, and civil war erupted in 1991.
It also explores the lives of modern-day Somali Minnesotans through interviews and photos, including some of the community’s successful business professionals and politicians, and it examines the Somali diaspora around the world.
Relating the most recent history, Roberts said, proved difficult because memories of the war and the ensuing trauma are still seared in many people’s memories.
“It’s very recent, very painful history for many folks. We didn’t want to trigger memories for people, so we treaded very carefully,” she said.