Three photos of people at the museum. L: Omran Muhtadi looks at objects in a case in a museum gallery. C: Yaroub Al-Obaidi, Joseph Britt-Simpson, Fadi Skeiker, and Tara Faik smile in the museum's West entrance. R: Joseph Britt-Simpson photographs Fadi Kharban in a museum gallery.
L: Omran Muhtadi; C (L to R): Yaroub Al-Obaidi, Joseph Britt-Simpson, Fadi Skeiker, Tara Faik; R (L to R): Joseph Britt-Simpson, Fadi Kharban. Photos by Morgan Gengo.

4 by 4 by 1: Four Immigrants, Four Stories, One Museum

Fadi Skeiker

Twenty years ago, when I first arrived in the United States as an international student, I took my first steps on American soil in Philadelphia. And what did I do as soon as I arrived? I made a beeline for the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Those iconic steps, made famous by the film Rocky, became my initial introduction to the vibrant cultural tapestry of America. From that moment, I felt a profound connection to the museum, an affinity that would shape part of my American experience.

As a Syrian immigrant, my personal narrative weaves together the threads of leaving my homeland, seeking education in the United States, and traversing the world through various work opportunities. It was in Philadelphia where I found my way back to the US, where the Philadelphia Museum of Art became part of my immigrant identity. For me, the museum served as a powerful symbol, a place where diverse stories intersect and immigrant voices find solace and inspiration.

Inspired by my own journey, I embarked on a project to delve into the immigrants’ perspectives on the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In general, my professional work through publishing research, directing staged productions, and developing of digital content aims to illuminate the refugee, diasporic, and immigrant experiences of people throughout the world. To bring this vision to life at the museum, I recruited four individuals who share my Arab and Middle Eastern heritage. Their task was simple but profound: choose two pieces of art: one that resonated with their past and another the represents future. Through their selections, I aimed to highlight the diverse ways in which immigrants perceive and connect with the museum’s collection.

The result was a series of video shorts that shed new light on the museum’s artwork. Each participant approached the project thorough their own unique lens, drawing upon their personal experiences and cultural backgrounds.

I am not going to tell you here what each immigrant chose. I want you to find that out by watching the videos below, and most importantly, I want you to hear about their selections in their own voices. However, before you watch the videos, I do want to invite you to play a guessing game: Which pieces of art would an immigrant from an Arab/Middle Eastern background select? What are the pieces that resonate with their pasts—would they be restricted to pieces from the Middle East, or would the participants be open to different cultures? Might they be European pieces? What about the pieces that represent their futures? What would our guesses tell us about our perception of Arab and Middle Eastern immigrants?

This project goes beyond showcasing individual preferences in art; it intertwines the stories of immigrants with the fabric of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. By amplifying the voices of immigrants, I aim to engage the local community and foster a deeper appreciation for the diverse experiences that make up the texture of Philadelphia. Through this exploration, we encourage others, regardless of their immigrant background or diasporic affiliation, to find elements within the museum that speak to their own journeys.

The importance of this project lies in its ability to bridge the gaps between cultures, to bring together native Philadelphians and immigrants, and to weave immigrant narratives into the very fabric of the art museum’s story. It celebrates diversity, fosters understanding, and encourages visitors to see the collection through a multitude of perspectives. By sharing these stories, we hope to inspire—within the walls of the Philadelphia Museum of Art—empathy, connection, and a sense of belonging.

In my day job, I am Professor of Theater at the University of the Arts. Several days a week, I commute to our Center City campus from my home in Northwest Philadelphia by taking Lincoln and Kelly Drives and looping in front of the museum before heading down the Benjamin Franklin Parkway toward Broad Street. Each morning that I take that drive, I pass by the same Rocky statue I first visited in 2003, and depending on the time of day, I see the lines of tourists, Philadelphians, and possibly new immigrants—as I once was–who are lined up to take a picture with the iconic statue. Hundreds of those same people run up the stairs of the museum, and turn around and admire the incredible view from museum’s East Terrace. As many of you know, it is a breathtaking sight. As I stare at the crowds of visitors of all ages, shapes, abilities, faiths, and colors, I hope that many of them walk through the doors of the museum to experience their own connections between the past and future.

Video Credits:
Artistic Lead: Fadi Skeiker
Videographer: Joseph Britt-Simpson
Coordinator: Morgan Gengo
Yaroub Al-Obaidi
Tara Faik
Omran Muhtadi
Fadi Kharban

Fadi Skeiker is a scholar and educator who focuses on theater as it relates to human rights and refugees. He teaches collaboration, directing, script analysis, and theater styles at University of the Arts. He has has directed, devised, and led applied theater work all over the world in Egypt, Germany, Jordan, Portugal and the U.S.
His book, Syrian Refugees, Applied Theater, Workshop Facilitation and Stories: While They Were Waiting, was published by Routledge in 2020. He is a Fulbright grantee and an Erasmus scholar. 

This post was supported by a Re:imagining Recovery grant to the Philadelphia Museum of Art from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.