A project manager for the “Making Memphis: 200 Years of Community" Pink Palace exhibit and a community engagement coordinator at the museum, Nur Abdulla has been recognized as one of the Memphis Flyer’s 20 individuals under 30 who are pioneering the future of Memphis. Abdulla discusses how she entered the field of urban anthropology and how she received this honorable recognition, along with describing her personal journey that eventually led her to dedicate herself to making sure underrepresented and disenfranchised groups are being included and represented in museum work.
Interviewed by Hira Qureshi
For our readers who haven’t had the privilege of meeting you, could you relay a little about yourself.
I am Nur Abdulla, a 28 year old. I come from a mixed ethnic background (African American and Egyptian). I grew up in Memphis. Currently, I live in Cordova but I am moving to Midtown. I am a sci-fi and fantasy nerd- I’m a huge LOTR fan, followed by Star Wars. When I’m not watching Netflix, I enjoy reading, hiking, and crafting. Cooking is my most consistent creative hobby. I spend a lot of time pretending I’m on “Chopped” while making dinner.
For people who don’t know what a Coordinating Curator is? Can you tell us about your job and what it’s like to work for the Pink Palace?
A curator, at least in the traditional sense, is someone who works closely with a museum’s object collection by collecting, protecting, or organizing. I work in the Exhibits Department of the Pink Palace so my title basically means I’m a project manager for a special project at the Museum, our Bicentennial exhibit, “Making Memphis: 200 Years of Community.” I was hired in October 2017 for this reason. My role has also evolved into something along the lines of “Community Engagement Coordinator,” and is leading to more community-centered projects, some of which developed organically from the Bicentennial exhibit.
Working at the Pink Palace has been wonderful. I have a great circle of coworkers and colleagues who are all very passionate about the work that we do. It’s different from a lot of the other museums I’ve worked in because there are a lot of different departments. I consider myself very blessed, Alhamdulillah, to be working here because the Pink Palace is one of my earliest museum memories. As a child, we lived within walking distance to the museum, and being homeschooled, we took advantage of a lof the educational programming at the museum and came at least once a week.
I really got into this field by “accident” but honestly, that’s just proof that everything happens for a reason, subhanAllah. Since I was about 7, I knew I wanted to do something with wildlife conservation but by the time I started college I was “undecided/biology.” I took an anthropology class and decided that it was the perfect combination of things I loved (science, history, geography, sociology etc.) and avoided me having to pick just one! So, I got my undergraduate in anthropology and Japanese.
My graduate degree is technically in urban anthropology, focused on education, cultural heritage, community engagement and museums. My personal background influences me a lot in being dedicated to making sure underrepresented and disenfranchised groups are being included in museum work.
Before the Pink Palace, I worked at the Morton Museum of Collierville, the National Civil Rights Museum and the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa. I was at Chucalissa for about 4 years, starting in undergrad until the end of graduate school. Being there had an instrumental impact in helping me decide “what I wanted to be when I grew up.” Before my first internship as a sophomore, I never thought about a career in museums. However, museums turned out to be the perfect combination of a lot of things I was interested in (history, archeology, education and cultural heritage preservation). The former director of Chucalissa, Dr. Robert Connolly was / is an amazing mentor and he was also my supervisor, graduate advisor and practicum chair. I have been very fortunate in having excellent supervisors at all my jobs. With the exception of the NCRM, my experience is mostly in small museums which allowed me to be involved in a variety of things from educational programming, sales, event planning, collections management and exhibit design. This really diversified my “tool box” and proved useful for the huge project that the Bicentennial exhibit and programming became.
You were nominated as one of the 21 people for the Memphis Flyer’s annual 20 < 30 The class of 2019. How does it feel to be chosen as one of the pioneers for the future of Memphis?
To be honest, I didn’t know anything about this recognition until my co-worker nominated me. It was very flattering but also humbling. I was in the middle of overseeing one of the biggest projects of my career and the new, innovative ideas for the Pink Palace that were part of the project, while exciting, presented opportunities and challenges. The fact that all that was a major part of the 20 < 30 and seeing all the great work that my cohort are involved in, it’s a little surreal.
Do you have any advice for young Muslims in our community?
Being a Muslim means adding yet another layer to your identity. Before anything else, our Islam is supposed to be *the* first and most important. But being a Muslim in America, especially now, our Muslim identity can seem like the the most challenging and most alienating layer of our identity. This is especially hard for the younger generation, juggling the expectations and pressures of the “cultural” Muslim and non-Muslim community. My biggest piece of advice is don’t get lost in it all. Don’t isolate yourself one way or the other. Educate yourself to know what is truly Islam and what are non-religious, cultural norms. We can’t expect people to understand or respect our religion if we can’t do that ourselves. Just being in spaces as a Muslim, aware and proud of our religious identity, is an indirect step to helping our city become more welcoming and diverse. As long as it’s not haram, don’t be afraid to do something just because “I don’t see anything other Muslims doing it” etc. Along a similar vein, young Muslims need to pursue their passions in the arts, psychology, social services, education etc. and make them into careers. (And parents and the larger Muslim community need to be more supportive of this! While I didn’t have this issue with my parents, when it came to the community, I found myself either being made to feel like oddity or having to “justify” my education and career choices a lot of times...there’s some stigma there). These are crucial fields to our city and society. It’s time to normalize our presence in them.
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