Arab-American museum director leaving after 5 years

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

Devon Akmon was moved when the head of the Ferguson Commission, which investigated the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown, called on museums in a Philadelphia speech to step up after such public tragedies.

“He argued what people need more than anything is a place of respite,” said Akmon, director of Dearborn’s Arab American National Museum. “He asked, ‘What if museums opened their doors?’ ”

So after the 2016 Pulse nightclub murders in Orlando, Akmon invited members of the local LGBT community to gather at the museum’s Annex for commiseration and support.

“It’s not something museums have thought of before,” said the 41-year-old Michigan State University graduate, “but it let us provide the community with a space to think and connect.”

The gesture was characteristic of the innovative approach that’s guided Akmon’s five years as museum director. He will step down from the museum at the end of May.

The museum, which last year saw 57,000 visitors, has launched a nationwide search for a successor.

Under his tenure, AANM ratcheted up its national visibility. He also enlarged the museum and successfully navigated the anti-Arab and anti-immigrant turbulence of the past two years.

“We’ve found ways of addressing what’s happening in the political arena without being a political institution,” Akmon said, pointing to events held last year to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Japanese internment in World War II.

It’s a good example of the ties the museum’s made with other immigrant communities — a key strategy since its founding in 2005 by ACCESS social services and Dr. Anan Ameri, and a way of casting the Arab-American experience as part of the national immigration story.

“Devon’s been doing a great job being the face of the museum and connecting and partnering,” said Juanita Moore, president and CEO of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, who worked closely with both Akmon and Ameri.

“Devon had his own vision for the museum,” Moore added, “and has really implemented it.”

For her part, Ameri, now retired, said she hired Akmon 13 years ago as a part of the original curatorial team because he was clearly “smart, capable and ambitious.”

She gives her successor high marks for strengthening the institution and giving it a higher profile in the museum world.

The museum, with an operating budget of $2.7 million, has carved out a reputation for creating shows capable of winning national audiences.

“Patriots & Peacemakers,” which documented the Arab-American contribution to the military and U.S. Foreign Service, appeared at the State Department and the Russell Senate Office Building in 2014. Two years later, “Little Syria, N.Y: An Immigrant Community’s Life & Legacy” showed at the Ellis Island Museum of Immigration.

But perhaps nothing was more impressive than winning American Alliance of Museums accreditation in 2013, a lengthy process launched under Ameri and concluded on Akmon’s watch.

According to the AANM website, of the roughly 18,000 museums in North America, fewer than 2,000 enjoy accreditation, which serves as seal of high professional standards and accomplishment.

Akmon admitted stepping away from the place he’s spent his entire professional career is hard, but he thinks it’s time.

“One of the wonderful things about working here,” Akmon said, “is it never felt like a job. But now I’m in my 40s. I think it’s time to try my hand at something new, though I will always support this institution.”

He doesn’t know what comes next, though he said he’s quite sure he’ll remain in the museum or nonprofit world.

Meanwhile, other institutions have already been sniffing around. There have been discreet inquiries.

“But,” Akmon added with a smile, “I can’t tell you what.”

(313) 222-6021

Arab American National Museum director to leave

Name: Devon Akmon

Age: 41

Position: Outgoing director, Arab American National Museum

Education: Bachelor’s degree, Michigan State University; Master’s degree, Eastern Michigan University

Spouse: Dharma Akmon