World’s first Somali museum opens in Minneapolis

Credit: Photo by Elizabeth Hustad

Minnesota is now host to the only Somali cultural museum in the world, something that has come about after the determined efforts of a Minneapolis businessman who began collecting cultural artifacts four years ago. 

Osman Ali feted the opening of the Somali Cultural and Artifact Museum on East Lake Street with an open house reception Saturday that showcased selections of his vast collection, including an ablution jug, hand-made sandals, nomadic weaponry, musical instruments and myriad dhlil for storing milk, each one decorated by beads, shells, colorful woven cloths or etchings.

Friends and acquaintances of Ali at times acted as impromptu tour guides, explaining the stories and history behind many of the pieces on display. Abdulkadir Said, who goes by the name Argoos, picked up the oud, a pear-shaped instrument similar to the lute, and traditional as well as original Arabic music floated through the museum.

Ali started the museum project in 2009 after he returned to Somalia on news of his father’s declining health. What he found while there was a void in historical and cultural preservation — the museum that had stood in Mogadishu was destroyed and its contents were scattered by the war.

The project proved to be an enormous undertaking that took Ali to many of Somalia’s provinces in search of the pieces that now make up his more than 700-item collection.

The museum is situated in five rooms on the lower floor of the old Plaza Verde building at 1516 E. Lake St. The space was previously owned by the Neighborhood Development Center, which fosters new cultural and artistic business ventures.

The premises at Plaza Verde are only intended to be temporary. “I’m halfway – middle way – to my target and goal,” Ali said, saying that he envisions a larger space complete with a full-size Somali hut and room enough for the remaining pieces of his collection that are currently housed in storage. A separate room for screening locally made documentaries is also in the plan, Sarah Larsson, the museum’s outreach co-ordinator, said, adding that a more long-term goal is to have headphones for accompanying the artifacts with music and poetry.

A benefit event for the museum in March raised $2,000, and the museum was the recipient of a $5,000 grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board. Additional funding has flowed to the project from individuals, local Somali businesses and school groups.

Already nine or 10 Minneapolis charter schools that serve a predominantly Somali student body have asked about field trips, Larsson said. Pieces from the museum had also been on traveling exhibition at schools and libraries toward the end of 2011.

Many of the ideas for the museum have come from individuals within the Somali community. The museum was part of “A grand conversation that has been going on for a long time,” Larsson said.

“[It is] a lost glory,” said Siyad Warsame Ali, referring to the history captured by the museum. “I was young when the war broke out. Seeing these things is like – wow.” Ali had lived for some time in a refugee camp before coming to the United States.

The museum is expected to be open on a regular schedule (9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays), though until enough volunteers are found for staffing Larsson recommends visitors call Osman Ali ahead of time.