Taking a deep-dive into Somali culture at the Minnesota Historical Society  

Members of the Somali Museum Dance Troupe (mostly high school and college students) study and perform traditional dances from all regions of Somalia throughout the U.S. // Photo by Mustafa Ali

Members of the Somali Museum Dance Troupe (mostly high school and college students) study and perform traditional dances from all regions of Somalia throughout the U.S. // Photo by Mustafa Ali

Minnesota is home to the largest population of Somalis in the United States. Roughly 57,000 people live here, according to the latest census figures (the actual number is believed to be much higher); most live in the Minneapolis–St. Paul area.

The “Somalis + Minnesota” exhibit, organized by the Minnesota Historical Society and the Somali Museum of Minnesota and currently on display at the Minnesota History Center, highlights the community’s rich cultural history. It features historic artifacts and personal perspectives in the form of videos, interactive photo panels, a reconstructed nomadic hut from Somalia, carved wooden containers, hand-woven mats, and more, all geared toward offering insight into Somali life both here in Minnesota as well as in Somalia.

Somalia, located on the far east coast of the Horn of Africa, and the United States have had ties ever since a small group of Somali sailors came to the U.S. in the 1920s and settled in New York City. In the 1960s, students began coming from Somalia to the U.S. to pursue educational opportunities. At first, they primarily chose schools on the East Coast, but later ventured farther west to Minnesota, to attend the University of Minnesota and St. Cloud State University.

The biggest surge of Somali immigrants to the U.S. started in 1991 after the outbreak of civil war. A year later, the U.S. began issuing refugee visas to thousands of Somalis, kicking off the immigration boom to Minnesota. Osman Ali, director of the Somali Museum of Minnesota, says the reason so many Somalis came to Minnesota, despite it being polar opposite to Somalia in many ways, is because Minnesota “held good opportunity, jobs with good pay, assistance, and at the same time [the] sponsoring [of] their families.”

The idea for the “Somalis + Minnesota” exhibit really started three years ago, says Kate Roberts, co-exhibit developer at the Minnesota Historical Society. MNHS had done a few exhibits that were similar in nature in recent years—including “We Are Hmong Minnesota” (2015) and “Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation” (2016)—and was interested in continuing to showcase the diverse communities within the state.

Somali high school students who participated in the MNHS program “Wariyaa: Somali Youth in Museums” in 2016 interviewed family members, collected recipes and stories, researched techniques and ingredients and tested recipes at the Mill City Museum Baking Lab // Photo by Andrea Reed, Minnesota Historical Society

Somali high school students who participated in the MNHS program “Wariyaa: Somali Youth in Museums” in 2016 interviewed family members, collected recipes and stories, researched techniques and ingredients, and tested recipes at the Mill City Museum Baking Lab // Photo by Andrea Reed, Minnesota Historical Society

Recognizing the large amount of misinformation surrounding the Somali community, it felt imperative to both MNHS and the Somali Museum of Minnesota to help Minnesotans better understand their neighbors and capture and present their stories, history, and culture in a fresh way.

“My favorite part of this experience has been getting the chance to take a journey into another culture,” Roberts says. “We are so privileged to live amongst a thriving community like this.”

Osman Ali, director of the Somali Museum of Minnesota, was born in Somalia and moved to Minneapolis in 1996. He says he’s excited to share a part of his roots with people who come to the exhibit. “We want to show culture, to show their past.”

“Somalis + Minnesota” is split into two rooms: the back “Traditional Life” room and the front “Life in Minnesota” space. For the full chronological effect, go to the back room first. There, installations of huts, agricultural tools, a loom, fabrics, jewelry, and even food preservation objects fill the space, all purchased from Somalia or brought to Minnesota by Ali himself. Further adding to the scene is the work of Twin Cities visual artist Abdiaziz Osman. Osman was born in Mogadishu, and painted the walls of the installation to depict expansive blue skies, a rust orange-colored desert, and camels and sheep, all of which combine together to bring to life the Somalian landscape.

Faces cover the walls in the front room, each square panel featuring a Somali man or woman who currently call Minnesota home. Medical workers, artists, politicians like Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar: every panel contains photos, quotes, and stories. As a whole, the room is a celebration of the resilience of Somali people in Minnesota, and helps those unfamiliar with the community to understand what it means to be a Somali-Minnesotan by highlighting both successes and struggles.

“Like many immigrant groups, they face struggles with language, jobs, education, and acceptance,” says Jessica Kohen, public relations manager of MNHS. “But they are also very resilient and have thrived in every sector of Minnesota life.”

“Somalis + Minnesota” is on display at the Minnesota History Center through June 2019.

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