An Arab American Christmas Story

One of my favorite activities to do with a tour group at the AANM is to take them into our Making an Impact exhibit, gather them around a case with an opaque glass cover, and tell them about Robert George. I tell them that Robert George worked at the White House under six presidents, and then ask what job they think he had. I always receive a variety of answers, but nobody ever gets it right. When I press the button to reveal what is behind the glass, I always hear gasps of surprise – Robert George was the White House Santa Claus!

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Robert George as Santa Claus

Born in Nebraska in 1924 to Lebanese parents, Robert George started out as a barber before donning a Santa suit in 1949. His performance as Santa became well known, and in 1956 he was invited to the White House by President Eisenhower. He continued to act as Santa Claus at the White House for Presidents John F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. Illness prevented him from working with President Clinton, and he passed away in 1998 at the age of 74.

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Robert George with Richard Nixon

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Robert George with George H.W. Bush. By David Valdez, White House Photographer

Robert George was also known for having a year-round display of Christmas decoration at his home in California, and for his good works in the name of Santa Claus. He often made visits to hospitals, community centers, orphanages and nursing homes, including bringing gifts to disadvantaged children. According to an interview with his wife, he owned 38 different Santa suits for these visits as well as two regular suits in bright red! One of those Santa suits, along with a number of other artifacts and photographs, was donated to the AANM by his daughter in 2004.

Of course, Robert George wasn’t only Santa to the President – below is a photograph of him with another Lebanese American, and subject of our An Enduring Legacy: Danny Thomas and ALSAC/St. Jude:

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Robert George with Danny Thomas


Merry Christmas from the AANM!

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Researcher’s Visit Proves Invaluable to Dissertation

The following blog post was written by Martina Koegeler-Abdi. She received the 2015 Evelyn Abdalah Menconi Travel Grant to visit the Arab American National Museum and conduct research. Koegeler-Abdi describes her experience in this post. Learn more about the 2016 grant and how to apply.


The Arab American National Museum and its incredible staff have been very supportive during my archival research and throughout my dissertation project on Arab American women’s self-representation. I came across the unpublished memoir “Arabian Antipodes” by Rosemary Hakim in their catalogue during my initial research in 2014 and Kirsten Terry-Murphy was kind enough to scan and send a copy of the memoir to my location at the University of Copenhagen. In the meantime, the AANM Collections Online site offers more and more electronic sources from their archives, but I want to emphasize here how rich and manifold the physical holdings of the library are. I am very grateful for the generous support of Evelyn Abdalah Menconi Travel Grant, which enabled me to visit the Arab American National Museum for 10 days in August 2015 and this stay has proved invaluable for my dissertation research.

IMG_20150828_141541598_HDRDuring my stay I was able to gather much more contextual material around Rosemary Hakim and the Miss Lebanon America beauty pageant. This research will be the basis for 2 dissertation chapters and an article manuscript, which is currently under final revisions for the Journal of Transnational American Studies. Further, access to the Evelyn Shakir and Michael W. Suleiman collections was absolutely key to shaping the foundation of my dissertation: Shakir offers a meticulously transcribed wealth of oral histories from Arab American women throughout the 20th century and her collection also contains club minutes, correspondence and invitations to events by the Syrian Ladies Aid Club in Boston. The Suleiman collection is incredibly rich, and among other documents on Arab American research it also stores historical sources ranging from the early Arab American press all the way up to contemporary Arab American activist organizations. The physical access to the archives has made a tremendous difference to my research and I also want to thank again Kirsten Terry-Murphy, Matthew Stiffler and all the staff for their support, advice and the kind welcoming atmosphere.

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Happy Halloween with Kathy Najimy

How do you celebrate Halloween? One of my favorite Halloween traditions is to sit down with a bowl of popcorn and watch Hocus Pocus, the 1993 movie about three witches from Salem, Massachusetts who come back to life to terrorize the town (and suck the life from children, of course!). Despite that scary premise, Hocus Pocus is a silly and fun kid’s movie rather than a horror film, which is one of the things I love about it. The other this I love is that it stars Kathy Najimy, a prominent Arab American actress, as one of the witches. Najimy has been a great friend to the museum and has donated a number of items from her acting work, including a copy of Hocus Pocus and a signed photograph from the film. These seem like perfect items to share for Halloween!

Hocus Pocus

Hocus Pocus

© The Walt Disney Company. All Rights Reserved.

Hocus Pocus is one of Najimy’s better known films, but did you know it wasn’t her only turn at playing the undead? She also starred in the 2002 Disney Channel Original Movie The Scream Team, about two children who discover a group of ghosts whose job it is to help the recently deceased “cross over.” Najimy plays Moriah, a dead bride who is the boss of the so-called “soul patrol.” Another item in our collection is an original rendering of the costume for Moriah, once again signed by Najimy.

Costume from The Scream Team

Costume from The Scream Team

The collection also includes items from Najimy’s less spooky work, which includes both Sister Act movies, the TV shows King of the Hill and Veronica’s Closet, and the stand up comedy special The Kathy and Mo Show.  We have a few of these items on display in our Making an Impact exhibit – be sure to check them out next time you are visiting the museum!

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Artifacts as Memories of Home

We recently received a very interesting collection from a donor in Houston, Texas. The collection consists of three large photographs from Syria and Palestine, brought to the U.S. by a family that immigrated in the 1960s. Two of the photographs are simple portraits of family members, while the third depicts a funeral scene. The donor tells us that when the family first moved to the United States, the photographs hung in their living room as reminders of their family and their homeland.

Although our museum focuses on the Arab American experience rather than on the Arab World, many items in our collection originate in the Arab World as people brought them with them when moving to the United States. These items help people remember where they came from, and allow them to showcase their culture to new friends. Last year, we received a traditional Palestinian dress from a woman who told us she purchased the dress just before moving from Ramallah to the United States for the specific purpose of showing Americans some of her culture. Watch a video where she talks about the dress below:

If you’ve ever moved to a new home, do you have items that remind you of your old home? Or if you were going to move away, what would you bring to show people where you came from?

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The Youth//Dhallinyarada

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At the end of July, we opened a new exhibit in one of our temporary galleries. The Youth//Dhallinyarada is a photography exhibition by Mohamed Mumin featuring the stories and photographs of 13 Somali American men living in Minneapolis. The goal of the exhibit is to highlight Somali men who are positively engaged in their community and to counteract the common negative stereotypes of Somali immigrants. Each man featured in the exhibit is given the opportunity to tell his story about coming to the United States, trying to balance his Somali and American identities, and how he is now working to help his community.


The exhibit focuses on the larger-than-life photographs of each man. These images are striking, not only for their size, but also in their ability to draw the viewer in – these are not images at which you can glance and move on. Particularly striking are the eyes, which feature a halo of light that give the images an almost otherworldly quality. Mumin created the halo effect with a self-constructed ring of light bulbs that shone on the subjects as they were photographed. He shared a photograph of the process with us on Twitter:

Twitter screenshot

The exhibit also features a video compilation of interviews with each man as well as a booklet containing their photographs and stories that visitors can take home.  We hope visitors enjoy this multimedia exhibit and that they learn about the Somali American community and the challenges faced by its members.

Abdifatah Farah is a youth activist, actor and spoken word artist.

Abdifatah Farah is a youth activist, actor and spoken word artist.

Mumin will be at the museum in September for two events surrounding the exhibit. On September, the AANM is hosting a UNITY Town Hall forum with UNITY: Journalists for Diversity, Take on Hate, ADC-Michigan and CAIR to discuss issues of Arab American representation in the media. The event will also feature a gallery stroll and talk about the exhibit. On September 12, Mumin will be putting on a youth photography workshop for ages 15-21. To learn more about these events or how to visit the exhibit, see the museum website.

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Oral History Project in Memphis

Earlier this month, AANM staff attended the 2015 convention of the Southern Federation of Syrian and Lebanese American Clubs in Memphis to record oral histories and digitize family photographs for our Family History Archive. The event was a huge success, and we gathered stories from 13 families.

Participants before an interview

Participants before an interview

The stories were fascinating. Some stories were about growing up in the only Lebanese family in a small southern town, while others talked about the large Syrian/Lebanese communities in bigger cities – often formed around Maronite Catholic churches.  Most participants came as a pair and interviewed each other, so wives interviewed husbands, grandchildren interviewed grandparents and cousins interviewed each other. We are so thrilled to include these stories in our museum collection and make them accessible through our digital collections portal, AANM Collections Online.

This year’s oral histories won’t be ready until the fall, but in the meantime, you can watch the videos from last year here: Family History Archive of Syrian and Lebanese Families in the American South.

What kinds of stories would you tell about your family? Tell us in the comments below!

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Happy 10th Anniversary, AANM

Did you know the Arab American National Museum turned 10 years old this month? We’ve had 10 years of fascinating exhibits and exciting events in our building, and we are celebrating this whole year! Learn more about our many upcoming events on our 10th anniversary page.

Our Grand Opening in 2005 was a huge event. We literally closed down the street to accommodate the party that happened out our front door. So to celebrate our anniversary here on the Curatorial Blog, I thought I’d share some images of the opening from our institutional archives. If you were at the opening ten years ago, let us know what you remember in the comments. We’d love to hear from you!


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