Controversial Content: The Arab American National Museum’s exhibition on the Arab Spring

As the revolutions in the Arab World continue to unfold, many in the United States are ambivalent – perhaps, in part, because we are not sure which of the players wear the white hats.  Should we cheer a revolution against a dictator who defends his position by killing more than 100,000 civilians and ripping his country apart? Should we root for protesters seeking democracy if it removes the only source of protection for the country’s Christian population and allows for the rise of religious extremists?

For many Arab Americans, the continuing conflicts in the Arab World are keenly felt.  These revolutions are not only taking place in their ancestral homelands, but, more importantly, many Arab Americans retain strong ties with family members who still live in the Arab World and are directly affected by these conflicts.

In 2012, Dr. Christiane Gruber, an Associate Professor at the University of Michigan, approached the Arab American National Museum with an idea for an exhibition on the Arab Spring that we believed we could use to address these revolutions without taking sides. Instead of focusing expressly on politics, the focus was to be on the role of art in the revolutions.  

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the exhibition’s development was the selection of which pieces to include. Many images considered for the exhibition presented points of view that some would call extremist.  While the exhibition text would help frame the pieces within the political landscape, we certainly could not assume visitors would read these labels.

We were pleased that Dr. Gruber proposed devoting the very first section of the exhibition to addressing the “truth vs. claim” issue.  Based on the results of visitor studies in the gallery where the exhibition would be installed, we knew that visitors to this gallery attend especially well to the labels that correspond to the first few pieces presented.

As a result, the first section of the exhibition focuses on the difficulty of assessing the truth presented in a photograph. The very first image presented is an Associated Press photograph of then Tunisian President Ben Ali at the hospital bedside of Mohammed Bouazizi.  Days earlier Bouazizi had set himself on fire after having his vegetable cart – and livelihood – confiscated by Tunisian police. One might think such a photo would illustrate the president’s compassion.  Instead, it further enraged Tunisians who saw the visit as an effort by the president to improve his public image. Ben Ali soon resigned the presidency, marking the first victory of a region-wide movement that came to be known as the Arab Spring. 

Just before the exhibition’s installation, we received five posters used by protesters in Syria. We declined to use one of the pieces based on its content -- a poster depicting President Assad killing children. True or not, we were unwilling to expose the children visiting our museum to this content. In this case and others, we strove both to maintain the integrity of the show and to be mindful of those who would experience its content, a particularly tricky balance in the context of these highly contested events. After nearly a year of work, here and abroad, guest curators Dr. Gruber and PhD student Nama Khalil joined us at the museum to celebrate the opening of Creative Dissent: Arts of the Arab World Uprisings.  

AANM reception-photo-5 Reception photo from the Arab American National Museum.

The exhibition explained and illustrated how artists in the Arab World helped reflect and propel the protests of the Arab Spring. We transformed our changing exhibit gallery into a showcase for the iconic photographs, interactive murals, political cartoons, puppet shows, posters, and even the songs and chants that became the soundtrack of these protests in American media.

The exhibition drew attention locally, nationally, and internationally.  Following are some highlights:

“… poetic rhythm weaves itself through the Creative Dissent exhibit …. slogans join photographs of key moments during the uprisings, and stand next to carefully crafted images that take aim at leaders accused of oppression.”

Kane Farabaugh, Voice of America, February 10, 2014

“It makes me hope that the Arab American National Museum will continue to lead this conversation -- to provide the space for scholars and artists to debate and document the uprisings.”

Jonathan Guyer, senior editor, Cairo Review of Global Affairs, February 5, 2014 2014

 “Creative Dissent: Arts of the Arab World Uprisings is a breathtaking tapestry and one of the finest examples of a multimedia exhibit we’ve ever seen … a much more insightful study of current history than the sound bites offered up by the western media.”

Robert del Valle, Columnist, Real Detroit Weekly, December 18, 2013

“… an effective reminder of the power of images to help change the world in real time.”

Mark Stryker, Art Critic Detroit Free Press, December 23, 2013

Despite our efforts, the exhibition still drew criticism.  By and large, the most eloquent forms of artistic expression were focused on protests against political regimes.  Art was not as successfully deployed as a defensive weapon. The result was an exhibit that focused on protest art without equally presenting the perspectives of those in power.

Although the exhibition closed here in January, it begins touring across the country next month. We are collaborating with other Arab American organizations to present the exhibition in at least six more venues through May of 2016. Several of these venues are concerned about content that might be especially painful for certain segments of the Arab Americans in their region. We are working with Arab American organizations in each of these cities to identify specific concerns and determine if certain pieces should be withdrawn or re-framed when the exhibition is presented in their region. As we navigate this process, we continue to explore the questions of content and context that shape museums’ ever-evolving roles in contemporary life.

To learn more about the exhibition’s content, please visit its website:

To learn more about the Arab American National Museum, please visit our website:

Elizabeth Chilton is Manager of Curatorial Affairs at the Arab American National Museum.