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American Museum of Natural History: 'Living in America' - 2002-02-02

The American Museum of Natural History has launched a new annual program to recognize the rich diversity of cultures, communities, and people in the United States. The initial focus of the New York museum is on Arab, South Asian, and Muslim cultures.

An Arabic rhythms workshop full of children and adults is part of the annual program called "Living in America."

Farraj: Now notice, as with all of these instruments, there are two important sounds. There is the bass-y sound that goes like this (bangs on the drum). That is what we call "doom." Can everyone say "doom?"
Audience: "Doom"
Farraj: Great. And then there is the dry sound that is not sustained that is called "tak" (bangs on the drum). And that is a "tak." Do a "doom."

The new project of The American Museum of Natural History explores the various communities in the city and across the nation. The project intends to show how people of these communities live in America.

This year the museum examines the challenges and issues confronting Arab, South Asian, and Muslim cultures in the United States. It is offering a series of lectures, films, workshops, photo exhibits, performances, and family activities.

Museum Coordinator Chanika Svetvilas says the program was originally to be inaugurated with a series on South Asian immigrants. But after September 11, she decided to include Arab and Muslim cultures as well. "After September 11, I felt there was a real need to demystify Arab and Muslim cultures by providing not only adult programs, but also family programs so that all ages could enjoy and appreciate the diverse cultures from these communities," she says.

The museum program aims to explore cultures through participation. One way is listening to a story.

"It happened on one of these occasions that he saw a venerable man giving bountifully to a beggar under a bridge. He asked the worthy sheik to come to his palace. He was very impressed by this generosity.
You appear to be a man of substance who yet has known toil," said the Khalifah.
I greatly wish to know the path by which Allah, God, has brought you to this fortunate state.
And this is the sheik's strange story."

The stories from "The Arabian Nights" are familiar to Americans. Katie Buck who read from "The Generous Sheik" pointed out that one tale, called "The Anklet," is really "Cinderella" with jewelry, rather than a slipper.

Stories entertain and inform. Music has always broken cultural barriers, and film and lectures offer people a way to better understand each other through reflection and interaction.

Elaine Charnov, director of public programs at the museum, says "what changes a person is narrative. I mean, that is how we all live our lives. We have stories. And it is through those intimate textured details of everyday life that you start to awaken to political similarities or political differences, or perspectives that you share or often do not. But that is the key hook in any medium that we would be using through our public programs' ventures."

American Museum of Natural History directors say the "Living in America" series is off to a strong start in reaching their goal of interpreting and sharing information about diverse cultures.