Resilience, art, optimism, and imagination are reflected in Palestinian culture, whether in Ramallah, Jerusalem, the murals of Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem city, Chile, or now, Washington, DC.
I sat down with the director of the Museum of the Palestinian People, Bshara Nassar, at the museum’s official home in DC’s bustling Dupont Circle neighbourhood, to learn more about his vision for a cultural institution in the US capital.
His plan is no less than to fill a void in the discourse by offering an alternative to the common talking-point spectrum, which at one extreme casts Palestinians as suffering and helpless, at the other politicises and denigrates them, and along the way buries the ordinary lives of regular people, posing a challenge to the collective imagination of an alternate trajectory or coherent future.
The Museum of the Palestinian People, is opening in the US capital as a “cultural embassy,” after the Palestinian Liberation Organisation shuttered its office under orders from US President Donald Trump.
The New Arab: How did this museum get its start, and who are you as an organisation?
Bshara Nassar: I grew up in Palestine and moved to the US in 2011 – my family has been running a farm [The Tent of Nations] that has been under threat of confiscation for 27 years and has been in the court since then. I grew up on the values of creative non-violent resistance and when I moved to the US I wanted to continue the legacy of my family.
Like any visitor who comes in DC, I visited the museums and monuments. You see stories from all over the world. However, with all these amazing museums telling diverse stories, I could not find a place to tell my story as a Palestinian, and that’s how the idea came about.
One thing I noticed about being Palestinian in the US, in the diaspora, is that we are reduced to a news item that says that we are either violent people, terrorists, or helpless victims who can’t do anything about our situation. This really struck me as an entrepreneur and peacemaker who comes from a family that really cares about Palestinians and seeing a bright future for us. It was after this I said, let’s start working on creating a museum in Washington DC.
I met Palestinian artist Ahmed Hmeedat in Washington DC. He went back to his refugee camp and sent me two pieces of artwork. One was with a Palestinian woman holding an ID that reflects the diverse identities of the Palestinian people. The other was the man who is holding a key, that’s for the sign of return. We started showing these two pieces of art work to different conferences and gatherings in DC and this is how the project took off.
I started saying to people: “Imagine if we have a space in DC to tell the Palestinian story, our culture, history, and to bring the Palestinian story home to the United States.”
In 2015, we created an exhibit in DC, and that initial exhibit got a lot of attention from all over the country. People started to call me and say, “You know, Bshara, we want you and your team to come to our state.” This is how the exhibit started flowing – we went to the east coast, west coast, Stanford University, Manhattan college in New York, Manchester University in the Midwest. This helped us create more and more momentum as a grassroots organisation and helped us to start growing the team.
Eventually we formed 501c3. A couple of years ago we got the status and we formed a board, so that was the travelling exhibit. That’s how it started.
Since 2014, we’ve done 50 travelling exhibits, shows, events, brought artists from Palestine to tell their stories and gone to different universities. In fact, still people are contacting us and want this exhibit to be in their communities. Only last week we went to Oklahoma City.
How has the concept for the museum changed over time?
The project started under the name “the Nakba Museum Project” but the concept shifted from only focusing on an event in the past, the Nakba, to talking about the general history of the Palestinian people. A history that also tells a story to the audience that Palestinian people have been in existence for thousands of years, not only since the Nakba. That’s an issue we have to pay attention to as Palestinians – our rich history and art expands from thousands of years.
So, the concept of the museum expanded to talk about the Palestinian people and show them as human beings. That’s very important, showing that Palestinians are people full of resilience and courage. The museum will show and highlight Palestinian Americans who are really contributing and are really an essential part of American dream.
When is the museum expected to open?
We are working on the remaining details, but we are looking forward to having a soft opening by the beginning of next year, and the grand opening will be determined in the next couple of months. As you can imagine there are so many details to be worked out.
Could you tell me a little about the space and location?
We are located in the heart of DC, between the Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle neighbourhoods. It’s a location with many museums and galleries. A couple of blocks from here you have the famous Phillips Collection, a couple of African American museums, Jewish museums and other galleries. We are working to bring some of these audiences and visitors who come to these museums, to the museum of the Palestinian People.
The building was given as a donation, free of rent for the next couple years by a couple touched by the exhibits and all the work we’ve been doing – for the Palestinian people and for Palestine, and so they decided to give it to the museum to use, the first two years it is free of rent.
Tell us more about your vision for the museum going forward
Our vision for the museum is to tell diverse Palestinian stories under one roof, and we are inviting all Palestinians from around the world. We have set a few values for the museum as the board of directors and leadership team, including diverse stories and co-authorship.
The first point is that we want to share stories beyond the “category”, beyond politics, beyond religion, beyond any of the artificial distinctions that we create – and to invite visitors who come to the museum to see that, and to open their hearts, you know? To discover the Palestinian people and the diversity of the culture, and to discover what unites us all as human beings.
The other point is about co-authorship. We welcome everyone to engage with us – visitors and non-visitors, volunteers, from all backgrounds, to contribute to the museum, and to be part of this museum.
As part of our co-authorship, we have organised dinners, within the Palestinian community and non-Palestinian community, to envision what the museum would look like. So, it’s a process. We want it to truly be a peoples’ museum. We have been doing a lot of dinners for the past six months to bring the Palestinian community together to tell us what they think, what they would like to see in the museum, and how they would like to tell their story.
What does the museum opening in this city, at this time and with the current administration mean?
It is very significant – right now, we see that education is very important. There is a lot of ignorance and there are a lot of misconceptions about Palestinians. But also, with the closing of the Palestinian embassy in Washington DC, we are really hoping that the museum will be a cultural embassy for Palestinian people. This means going back to the hub: we are a hub for Americans to come and learn more about who we are as Palestinians.
I am touched by a lot of people who have stepped in to support this project, I’m truly touched. From the building owners, to the architect who offered a 70 percent discount to work on the project, to the pro bono contractor who is coming to work on the museum, to all the donors – I mean, we’ve been getting support from hundreds of donors from around the country and even around the world.
We raised $100,000 and, truly this shows that this is something that people want. People are hungry to humanise the Palestinian story, and for such a cultural institution that will shift the perspective of Palestinians in the US and bring Palestine and Palestinian people to American’s hearts. I was not expecting all this support from individuals and people from all over the world.
What projects, programming or exhibits are you currently most excited about?
We just launched a call for proposals from Palestinian artists from all over the world to submit their work, and their ideas to us, so that we can feature them in the museum, and soon we will choose an artist to come to DC and meet with us.
Another thing we have heard from people and want to do, is to have activities for children. One of the things that we want to touch on is to impart the culture and preserve it for the next generation. We have already prepared some ideas for activities for children to reflect on the art, reflect on the history.
How can people support the Museum right now?
People can go on our campaign and donate for us to reach our goal of $200,000 to open the museum – and, if you are a Palestinian artist anywhere in the world, we invite you to submit your ideas, submit your proposal, to submit your exhibit to us, and we will seriously consider it, for display at the museum.