The Anacostia Community Museum celebrates 45 years

Reclaiming its Edge

Installation shot from the exhibition "Word, Shout, Song: Lorenzo Dow Turner Connecting Communities Through Language" at the Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum. Photograph: Susana Raab

On September 15, 1967, Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley addressed a crowd that included government officials, Smithsonian staff, and community members in front of the recently opened Anacostia Neighborhood Museum. “I believe that the opening of the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum is truly an important event in the history of museums,” he said. “I suspect that museums will never quite be the same again.” Forty-five years later, Dillon’s statements still holds true. As the first federally funded community-based museum, the institution now known as the Anacostia Community Museum (ACM) made the successful transition from outreach program to a nationally-recognized institution in its own right.

This year’s gala event, celebrating the museum’s 45th anniversary, will be held on September 15. Television actors Tim and Daphne Maxwell Reid will emcee the event, which will honor five people who made significant contributions to the community or museum with the Legacy Award, including Washington Informer publisher Denise Rolark Barnes, Anastasia Johnson, a long-time volunteer, and Phillip Pannell, executive director of the Anacostia Coordinator Council. First Lady Michele Obama serves as the honorary chair.

 The theme “Reclaiming Our Edge: Launching a New Vision,” reflects the ACM’s past as well as its future. “We’ve always been cutting edge since the beginning,” says Camille Giraud Akeju, the museum’s director since 2005. “The theme is a formal announcement of our new mission, which will help us reclaim our edge in museology.” The new mission statement reads as follows: “The mission of the Anacostia Community Museum is to challenge perceptions, broaden perspectives, generate new knowledge, and deepen understanding about the ever-changing concepts and realities of ‘community.’” The mission statement may be new, but the ACM have been following it for the last four decades.  

Considered to be Ripley’s “brainchild,” the ACM was originally intended to be an informal storefront museum for a low-income and non-traditional audience who, for any reason, didn’t attend the Smithsonian Museums downtown. After rejecting potential sites in the Adams Morgan and Georgia Avenue areas, co-founder Caryl Marsh, who served as the initial planning and development consultant on the project, suggested that they use the George Washington Carver Theater, located on 2405 Nichols (now Martin Luther King, Jr.) Avenue. Originally a “coloreds-only” theater, Carver Theater served as a church, skating rink, and community before it was ultimately left abandoned. After the Smithsonian claimed the Carver Theater in April 1967, a team effort including youth and adult volunteers and staff members helped finish the renovations in record time. By July, John Kinard, a community activist, minister, and educator who served as the museum’s first director, officially received the keys to the property and the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum was ready to open.

Despite the amount of initial interest in the museum, Kinard, who wasn’t trained in museum studies, but knew his community well, knew that in order for the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum to succeed, it had to feature exhibitions that reflected the community’s interests. To that end, he created a community advisory board to help design future programming. Within a year of opening, the museum’s focus started to shift from showing an eclectic mix of Smithsonian artifacts to focus on African-American issues, history, and culture: topics that are usually never explored in a museum setting. One of these early installations, “The Rat: Man’s Invited Affliction,” looked at vermin infestation and how it affects urban communities like Anacostia. “The Rat” was a massive success for the museum, leading to a country-wide tour and television special. With a new focus and newfound national recognition, the museum shortened its name to the Anacostia Museum and began transitioning to a larger facility a mile away. In May 1987, the museum opened in its present-day location: 1901 Fort Place. After Kinard’s death in 1989, the museum established the John Kinard Gallery in his honor. By 1995, it absorbed the National African American History Museum Project, prompting another name change: the Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture.

When the Smithsonian announced plans to open the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2015, the museum started shifting its focus yet again. With no room in the federal budget for two museums focusing on African American history and culture, the Anacostia Museum had to find a new focus; this became Akeju’s first order of business when assumed the role of director. After a year of meeting with focus groups, the advisory board and others invested in the museum for over the year, she and her colleagues began to see a subtle change in area demographics; in order to stay relevant, they had to find ways to relate to this new audience. Therefore, in 2006, it was renamed the Anacostia Community Museum to reflect a more broad focus: connecting universal themes to contemporary urban communities, such as those located East of the Anacostia River in far southeast DC.

The first exhibition to fully reflect this focus will be “Reclaiming the Edge: Urban Waterways and Civic Engagement,” which will open to the public on October 15. Gala guests will be treated to a preview of the installation, which not only focuses on the history, ecology, and culture surrounding the Anacostia River, but community efforts to restore it. The exhibit will also explore similar efforts in five other urban river-based communities around the world. With “Reclaiming the Edge” on display for the year, the ACM planned programs that will expand on the exhibit’s theme. For instance, “Citizen Scientists” invites community members to help monitor the Anacostia River’s health, working side-by-side with trained ecologists. Even the gala will be inspired by the exhibit, featuring a virtual water environment (right down to a river dance floor) and specialty food and drinks inspired by the river communities featured in the exhibit.

“With a broader focus, it does changes how we do research,” says Portia James, who serves as the supervisory museum curator. “It allows us to look at issues that impact everyone.” Some potential exhibitions include an artwork display featuring Ubuhle Beautiful Bead, a South African organization known for the traditional art of beading and an installation exploring Washington, DC during the Civil War. James hopes to include more exhibits that explore contemporary art, history and how it impacts present issues, and emerging technology. “The real challenge is learning how to stay relevant with young people,” she says. “With today’s emerging technology, it gets harder.”

This is a challenge Akeju believes the ACM can overcome by reaching out to the community. Despite not having a community liaison, the staff has found different ways to reach out. One example is through the Museum Academy program, which exposes children and teens to the arts, culture, and museum careers through afterschool and summer programs and internships. Another example was “Citified: Arts and Creativity East of the Anacostia River,” a popular presentation at this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which invited visitors to participate artistic expressions such as line dancing, quilting, and storytelling. No matter the avenue, Akeju has one goal for the ACM: “I want the museum to be a catalyst in preserving and presenting community history while helping others see their issues from a global perspective. It shows that we aren’t alone. Hopefully, this will be the beginning of change.” 

The Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum is located at 1901 Fort Place, SE, Washington, DC 20020. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except December 25.