Around the Mall & Beyond

Since its founding in 1967, the Anacostia Museum has grown from "storefront" concept to "neighborhood museum" to world renown

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Certainly no example of such community growth could be more perfect than the Anacostia Museum itself, a bootstrap operation that has made museum critic Kenneth Hudson's list of the world's most influential museums ("museums which have broken ground in such an original or striking way that other museums have felt disposed or compelled to follow their example"), a list that has omitted the Louvre, the Getty and the National Gallery.

"We're about identity and community, about what makes living in Washington good," says Anacostia director Steven Newsome. "The current show focuses not only on the infrastructures such as the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal that made Washington an urban center, but on the people who built it."

Incidentally, slavery was abolished in Washington, with compensation to slaveholders, in 1862. By this time, the city markets were mostly run by free blacks, and in 1863 one of them, Columbus Scriber, opened a flour and feed store at 119 E Street Southwest.

"Actually, this is the second exhibit we've done on early Washington," says Newsome, who succeeded the founding director, John Kinard, in 1991. "Three years ago we did 'To Achieve These Rights,' depicting the self-determination of African-Americans in Washington from 1791 to 1992. We don't consider these exhibits so much black history as urban history in which black Americans are at the center."

The Anacostia Museum is located across the Anacostia River four miles from the National Mall. It is seen by relatively few tourists, and that's unfortunate, given its long history of fascinating exhibitions, such as "The Harlem Renaissance: Black Arts of the Twenties"; "Climbing Jacob's Ladder: The Rise of Black Churches in Eastern American Cities, 1740 - 1877"; and "The Real McCoy: African-American Invention and Innovation, 1619 - 1930."

The museum got its start in 1967 when then Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley took note of the fact that a large segment of Washington's population rarely if ever visited the imposing buildings on the Mall. He got the idea for a sort of storefront museum, a drop-in place without the fluted columns and grand staircases, an approachable place with hands-on exhibits. So he set the wheels turning.

What his people came up with was not a storefront but the old Carver Theater in the Southeast part of Washington, a former dance hall, skating rink and church with 5,000 square feet of space.

From day one, local citizens took a vital interest. A city-sponsored group called Teen Trailblazers worked alongside Smithsonian staff, and when the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum (as it was initially called) opened on September 15, 1967, with bands, speakers, cookies, punch and thousands of visitors, Ripley commented, "I suspect that museums will never be quite the same again."

Some saw a slight problem with the opening exhibit, which featured a full-scale mock-up of a Mercury space capsule, skeletons, a see-yourself TV setup, a small zoo and a reproduction of a country store. James Mayo, special assistant to director Kinard, observed that the museum "had absolutely nothing that came close to African-American history and culture," subject matter that was perhaps not quite the same as what Smithsonian curators in those days "thought about and what they dreamed about. They dreamed about spaceships and airplanes and trains and whistles — and whatever."

This situation was rectified without delay under the firm hand of John Kinard, great-grandson of a slave, whose credentials included the State Department, the United States Information Agency, Operation Crossroads Africa and pioneering work for the Southeast Neighborhood Development Program.


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