At age 5 the Unity Museum exhibits marked ability to expand services

Students enjoy materials exhibited at the Unity Museum in Seattle, Washington. Photo courtesy of Zabine Van Ness

If you ask what’s next for the Unity Museum in Seattle, Washington, don’t expect to hear about just one thing.

“What we do is we educate the public on the history, aims and purpose of the Bahá’í Faith,” says Zabine Van Ness, the museum’s driving force.

And that has taken many forms over its five years, with others on the way.

At the core is a 2,400-square-foot “brick and mortar” museum with a craft area, children’s area and lounge. It serves both as an inviting neighborhood space and as a resource for students struggling with how to bring about unity at whatever level of society.

Then there’s its academy, which uses internet conferencing to beam a rich variety of speakers living around the world into classrooms ranging from the University of Washington — conveniently, right across the street — to community colleges and such online universities as Walden and American International.

The third leg is Heart to Heart, an exhaustive database of questions and answers about the Faith that provides a jumping-off point for research and discussion on myriad topics related to personal and societal growth.

Put them all together and the Unity Museum offers an experience like few others:

  • A professor can choose a webinar that fits precisely into the syllabus of a particular course.
  • The class can visit the museum and view its exhibits relating to social change.
  • Students then can research issues — often using Heart to Heart as a tool — and create papers, tapestries, videos and the like that exemplify what they’ve learned and form the basis for further discussion.

“The information is there, but the students have to do the heavy lifting of thinking about how it applies in their studies and lives,” says Van Ness.

Now add virtual reality. “When [Facebook chairman and CEO] Mark Zuckerberg came out with the Oculus Rift, I was the sixth person to purchase one,” says the septuagenarian. VR headsets can bring museum exhibits alive. Van Ness also is kicking around the idea of an empathy-building peace game.

Helping other communities establish a similar museum is another emerging priority. “The template is in place with the academy and museum in combination,” says Van Ness.

She points to the potential of Washington, DC, a city with a rich Bahá’í history and a wealth of museums people flock to from everywhere. The key is location, she says. A museum “needs to be where the intended audience is.”

The Unity Museum also is focusing a lot of energy on working to supply content for departments of education and to help academy presenters refine their message for such markets.

Alongside such capacity building for faculty is the opportunity to help Bahá’ís and collaborators — particularly young people — develop the ability to confidently answer neighbors’ and peers’ questions about Bahá’u’lláh’s vision for humanity.

Van Ness says the Local Spiritual Assembly in suburban Lynnwood has purchased a tablet and loaded it with Bahá’í teachings from Heart to Heart, websites, and video sources. “Lynnwood has taken the initiative on the how-to” of aiding contacts’ investigation of the truth, she says.

In short, says Van Ness, the Unity Museum is “a learning center for capacity building to engage in a higher level of education.”

Or, as a student remarked, “a Bahá’í candy store.” One that’s finding its sweet spot with age.


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