Any resident of South Minneapolis is bound to notice a large population of Somali people living thousands of miles from their home country. But how did they get here? Following the decline of the French, British, and Italian colonial empires that had ruled the Horn of Africa before World War II, the Somali people found themselves split between the country of Djibouti (formerly controlled by France) and Somalia (formerly controlled by Britain and Italy). Like so much of postcolonial Africa, Somalia experienced great turmoil since gaining independence in 1960, culminating in a brutal civil war in the 1990s after the fall of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. Shortly after in 1992, refugees from Somalia began settling in Minnesota with the help of refugee resettlement agencies including Lutheran Social Services and Somali Family Services. As Somalia continues to work towards building a politically stable nation, many refugees have made and continue to make a home in Minnesota.
In 2009 Osman Ali, a refugee from Somalia, traveled home to visit his father, and planned to return with a couple of artifacts to share with his family in Minnesota. He was surprised to learn that even in Somalia, his younger relatives had little understanding of the history of the Somali people. He was also sad to discover that the years of civil war in Somalia had decimated the country’s own efforts at cultural preservation. Thus did Ali take it upon himself to begin to build a collection of artifacts he could bring to Minnesota and begin the important and difficult work of establishing a museum from scratch.
At first, Ali housed his burgeoning collection in the basement of Sanaag Coffee and Restaurant, a local business in South Minneapolis. At the time, the basement suited Ali’s needs. But in 2012, Ali scrambled to move his artifacts into a nearby building to prepare for a visit from then-Senator Al Franken. That larger space enabled Ali’s collection to grow until, in 2013, the museum was officially born in its current Lake Street location. Ali has since been a trailblazer when it comes to collecting Somali artifacts into a museum: this museum is the first of its kind in the United States.
The Somali Museum of Minnesota now houses over 700 pieces, focusing especially on the nomadic history of the Somali people. Visitors today have much to learn about the nomadic lifestyle that long defined the people of Somalia from the milk and water vessels on display to many traditional tools for caring for camels. The museum also hosts the very first “Aqal Soomaali,” or nomadic hut to be built in Minnesota. Not only does the museum contain a diverse array of artifacts, it also hosts scholars and poets and teaches classes in traditional Somali crafts. In this way, the museum is one of many vital hubs of a lively Somali culture.
The mission of the Somali Museum of Minnesota states that, “by promoting the highest forms of Somali creativity, the Somali Museum believes that it can also help to diminish harmful prejudice and misunderstanding.”4 As the population of Minnesota grows increasingly diverse and welcomes more people from around the globe, the importance of cross-cultural understanding becomes ever more important. The Somali Museum is therefore not only an impressive and fascinating museum, it is also a crucial community resource.