Arts and Entertainment

Mobile museum on Vashon honors Romani culture

Morgan Ahern sits inside The Romani Traveling Museum and Education Center.  - Tom Hughes photo
Morgan Ahern sits inside The Romani Traveling Museum and Education Center.
— image credit: Tom Hughes photo

Vashon has a new museum, but it doesn’t look like most other museums. For one thing, it’s on wheels.

The Romani Traveling Museum and Education Center is tucked inside a 14-foot, wood-paneled 1967 travel trailer parked in Burton. Inside is a treasure trove of items that speaks to the rich culture of the Romani people, an ethnic group commonly referred to as Gypsies.

Colorful scarves are draped across the ceiling, and vibrant fabrics cover the sofas.Captivating photographs of Romani people from all over the world cover almost every inch of wall space. A small library of books, DVDs and music CDs detailing Gypsy life fill the remaining nooks and crannies.

But the museum is not only a celebration of a lively and exotic culture. It also aims to tell a complex and often heartbreaking story that began almost 1,000 years ago, when the Romani people began to migrate to Europe from India, facing discrimination and persecution wherever they moved.

Orchestrating this remarkable display is Morgan Ahern, an Islander who has devoted much of her life to working as an advocate and documentarian for the Romani people. A tall, striking woman, she bears the distinctive look of her heritage — a warm olive complexion and huge brown eyes characteristic of many Romani people.

Ahern, 62, recently took an early retirement from her job as a librarian at Vashon’s branch of the King County Library — a move that has allowed her to devote more of her considerable energy to fulfilling her longtime dream of opening a museum.

“I’ve been talking about this for a long time,” Ahern said as she welcomed a visitor to the museum.

“This was the top of the line, back in the Lucy and Desi era,” she joked as she opened the door to the trailer, letting her small black Chihuahua mix, Chava, bolt ahead to claim a space on one of the trailer’s two sofas.

Morgan paused to marvel for a moment about the cost of the mint-condition trailer — only $350 on Craigslist, she said, adding that she’d gotten an additional $150 discount when she told the sellers, who lived in Woodinville, what she intended to do with it.

She also laughed as she recalled the adventure of hauling the trailer to Vashon, where it now sits in the large yard of a house belonging to Islander Kate Van Houdt, another former librarian who is helping Ahern with the museum project.

“She’s the physical force behind the project,” Ahern said. “I kept talking about it and she said, ‘let’s do it.’”

The low-cost, do-it-yourself museum is a project of Lolo Diklo: Romani Against Racism, an organization Ahern founded more than 20 years ago to raise awareness about the history, culture and lives of Romani people worldwide.

Ahern said the name, Lolo Diklo, translates from her native Romanes language to Red Bandana — a name she chose because it felt like shorthand for something that people who live a traveling life always need.

“It’s interesting that one of the only Romani rights groups in the Pacific Northwest — there is also one in British Columbia — has been based on Vashon for about 15 years now, and not many people have been aware of us,” Ahern said. “I’ve been traveling a lot, doing presentations to schools from kindergarten to the university level. It’s all such fun. That’s where I originally got the idea of the traveling museum. The kids love when I bring things for them to see and touch — dresses and jewelry.”

Last year, Ahern lauched a blog site, lolodiklo.blogspot.com, that she updates on an almost daily basis with an impressive compendium of articles and commentary about the history and lives of Romani people.

Ahern’s own life story encapsulates much of the suffering and strength of the Romani experience.

Ahern’s family fled Germany in the late 1930s, led by her resourceful grandmother, who purchased Italian citizenship papers for as many family members as she could afford. This allowed them to enter the United States and live in New York City as refugee Italians. But Ahern said many other family members, left behind in Germany, died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz — part of Hitler’s genocide of 65 to 70 percent of the entire European Romani population.

Ahern was born in the United States in 1948, but the family’s troubles hadn’t come to an end. When Ahern was 7 years old, she and her brother, along with other Romani children in her community, were removed from their homes by child protection authorities because they weren’t enrolled in school — a move she compared to the forced assimilation of Native American children.

“Historically, Gypsy kids don’t go school, so they said I had bad parents. But I had the best parents in the world. The whole Gypsy community is so loving,” Ahern said.

Ahern spent the next 11 years in boarding schools, foster homes and institutions, despite heroic efforts made by her grandmother to find her and her brother and bring them home.

As an adult, she looked far and wide for her relatives, but never saw any of her family members again until 1980, when she was crossing a street in Denver. She passed a woman who was crossing the street in the other direction, and their eyes locked.

“She said, ‘Can I buy you a cup of coffee — I think I’m your mother,’” Ahern said, adding that her mother then uttered proof of their relationship — Ahern’s secret lucky name, a name no one else in the world knew.

“Gypsies really believe in luck as a lifestyle,” she said, summing up the magical story. “There is a belief that everything will turn out alright.”

Ahern spent the next several years catching up with her family, and in 1986, she launched Lolo Diklo.

Now, she’s looking forward to sharing the story of her people with a broader audience, starting next week, when The Romani Traveling Museum and Education Center will be parked in front of U.S. Bank, next to the Voice of Vashon booth, during Strawberry Festival. There will be games, activities and prizes for children.

Ahern also hopes to host Gypsy music and outdoor movie nights on Van Houdt’s property, next to the trailer, as well as take the museum out onto the open road.

“It’ll get better and better,” Ahern said. “It’s brand new.”

The Romani Traveling Museum and Education Center will be parked in front of U.S. Bank, next to Voice of Vashon’s booth, during Strawberry Festival. There will be games, activities and prizes for children. The museum is usually parked at 23912 100th Lane S.W., in Burton. It is open by appointment only — call 463-1940 or 295-5568. Donations can be made to support the museum and Lolo Diklo: Romani Against Racism by following a PayPal link at lolodiklo.blogspot.com.

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