A New Day Begun

Committed to its community, the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Museum sets lofty goals for the future

Smithsonian Anacostia Museum
Anacostia Museum Wikimedia Commons

When the Anacostia Museum opened its doors in Southeast Washington in 1967, a new day had begun at the Smithsonian. The community-based museum quickly became known for its exhibitions focusing on African-American history and culture, innovative educational programs, and an array of activities that addressed the social issues affecting its constituents and neighbors. The museum was a pioneer in erasing the boundaries between museum and community.

A pioneering spirit continues to shape the scholarship, exhibitions and programs of the Anacostia and now the Center for African American History and Culture, with which it merged in 1995. The new entity mounts a series of thoughtful and engaging exhibitions in galleries in the Arts and Industries Building on the National Mall and in the Anacostia location. Currently on view are "Speak to My Heart: Communities of Faith and Contemporary African American Life," which is framed by a soaring timber structure in the Arts and Industries Building, and in Anacostia, "Locating the Spirit: Religion and Spirituality in African American Art." The latter inspired this year's well-attended James A. Porter Colloquium on African American Art, an annual scholarly discussion cosponsored with Howard University.

This fall, the Anacostia will cosponsor "Wrapped in Pride: Asante Kente and African American Identity," an exhibition mounted with the National Museum of African Art, and will join forces with the National Museum of Natural History for a Kwanzaa celebration when NMNH opens its newly renovated hall on African history and culture. One of the most exciting events sponsored by the Anacostia is Carnival, its annual Black History Month masked ball. Supported by the corporate community, individual donors and generous friends at the Canadian Embassy, this fundraiser transforms the Smithsonian Castle into a virtual wonderland reflecting the African diaspora.

The promise of the future is seen in the faces of the students who participate in our partnership program with Lucy Ellen Moten Elementary School, a local public school. These students, who were also featured in a television special during the Smithsonian's 150th Anniversary celebration, create exhibits, develop oral history projects and participate in history fairs. Building upon these activities, the museum is poised to face the challenges of a new millennium. Borrowing a phrase from James Weldon Johnson's anthem "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," the staff is embarking upon a campaign we are calling "A New Day Begun." It begins with a $5 million renovation of the Anacostia Museum building in 2000 that sets the stage for future expansion in research and collecting activities, all of which will require increased commitment and support from the private sector. Exhibitions and publications in the next few years will be infused by new research on the African-American family and community celebrations, photography and culinary traditions. Plans are also being developed for an in-depth study of the significance of Carnival traditions developed by black communities in the Caribbean and other places, such as Canada and England.

In order to provide future generations of scholars and museum visitors with material evidence of the African-American experience, the Anacostia is organizing long-term collecting endeavors that will expand the current holdings of more than 7,000 works-on-paper, paintings, photographs, manuscripts and other objects, such as Marian Anderson's fur coat worn at her 1939 concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Plans are being made for collections development and fundraising activities in Los Angeles and New York with the goal of creating the nation's most comprehensive collection of costumes, props, scripts and material related to the lives of African-Americans in the performing arts.

And just to round things out, Steven Newsome, the director of the Anacostia, has been instrumental in the development of three African-American-focused movies, a joint project between the Smithsonian and the Showtime Network, which will air in the next few years.

If S. Dillon Ripley, the Smithsonian Secretary who led the efforts to create the Anacostia Museum, and the late John R. Kinard, its founding director, visited the museum's galleries today, I am certain they would agree that, again, a new day has begun.

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