Minnesota History Center exhibit celebrates Somali culture

The “Somalis + Minnesota” exhibit offers personal perspectives of the Somali experience within Minnesota and features traditional culture and artifacts.

Lima Ahmad, 8, asks her older sister about different countries on a map at the History Center's new

Ellen Schmidt

Lima Ahmad, 8, asks her older sister about different countries on a map at the History Center’s new “Somalis + Minnesota” exhibit on Saturday, June 23 in Saint Paul.

J.D. Duggan

An exhibit featuring profiles of notable Somali residents, traditional artifacts and poetry highlighting East African culture in Minnesota opened last weekend in St. Paul.

The “Somalis + Minnesota” exhibit, organized by the Minnesota Historical Society and the Somali Museum of Minnesota, held a grand opening celebration on Saturday at the Minnesota History Center. The exhibit will remain open until June of next year and features Somali cultural artifacts and portraits of Somali people in Minnesota. 

Minnesota has the greatest Somali diaspora in North America, with a large concentration living in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, a region that has historically been resided by newcomers to the state. According to the exhibit, over half of the population of Cedar-Riverside is of East African descent.

“We had been collecting Somali history as soon as the arrival of the first folks in 1991,” said Kate Roberts, senior exhibit developer with the Minnesota Historical Society. “We have been doing oral histories and various other things to try and document the story [of Somali people].”

Roberts said the Somali Museum of Minnesota played a pivotal role in organizing the display. Gabriel Drummond, an animal science senior at the University of Minnesota and volunteer coordinator with the Somali museum, said the exhibit marks progress for the Somali community in Minnesota.

“For me, the most amazing part is that we started out as a museum with the owner having items in a suitcase in the back of his car,” Drummond said. “It kind of expanded from just artifacts in [Somali Museum Founder Osman Ali’s] suitcase to a full-fledged location.”

Artifacts on display included traditional Somali huts and a wall-to-wall mural depicting the plains of the country. University alumnus Abdirahman Hassan demonstrated the use of Somali tools in videos throughout the exhibit.

“I’m honored that I can help tell part of that story,” Hassan said. 

Hassan, a gallery guide and accessibility coordinator at the Somali Museum of Minnesota, expressed his appreciation that the exhibit showcased successful Minnesota Somalis, like doctors, nurses, politicians and athletes.

Said Salah Ahmed, a Somali instructor at the University and poet and playwright, was profiled in the exhibit. 

Hassan said the cultural exchange the exhibit offers helps to shed a positive light on Somali culture, which he said is sometimes displayed negatively in the media. He said the exhibit was especially important to Somali elders, who may not have seen the displayed artifacts in decades.

“They’re like ‘Oh my god, [these are] things I haven’t seen for … 30 years, 40 years, and my culture is important enough for it to be interesting to other people,’” Hassan said.

Profiles in the exhibit can inspire Somali youth who may not be exposed to role models in popular culture, Hassan said. 

“It’s wonderful because it gives young Somali kids within Minnesota models to look up to,” Hassan said. “When they see stuff from the media, sometimes they don’t see their face, they don’t see their names. But this gives them something to look up to.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misquoted Kate Roberts. She said, “We had been collecting Somali history as soon as the arrival of the first folks in 1991.”