Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum
At the mention of a Smithsonian Museum, we generally think of one of more than a dozen buildings located along the Washington National Mall between the Capitol Building and the Lincoln Memorial. While these buildings house a wealth of historic and cultural artifacts, the Smithsonian’s list of museums extends far beyond the Mall into Washington, DC’s suburbs and historic neighborhoods.
One of those museums, the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, is located East of the Anacostia River just ten minutes by car from the National Mall. In the city’s Ward 8, it is located on the borders of the Historic Anacostia and Fort Stanton neighborhoods in southeast Washington. It is situated on a wooded hilltop surrounded by Fort Stanton Park, the strategic site of the fort charged with defending the city from Confederate attacks, and tidy row homes just north of Suitland Parkway.
As I climbed the steps of the museum, I was drawn to the free-standing sculpture located in the courtyard to the right of the museum’s entrance. The weathering steel and glass Ancestral Guardian sculpture called Real Justice was designed by Allen Uzikee Nelson, the great, great grandson of a slave. The sculpture is dedicated to the Spirit of Thurgood Marshall, the long-time NAACP lawyer who argued successfully in the U.S. Supreme Court against segregation in schools and other racially restrictive laws.
According to Nelson’s website, his artistic philosophy is that “all art is representative of culture.” His icons “are intended to rejuvenate our ancestral memory, to educate, to improve the self-esteem of African Americans . . .” and to bridge the gap between African rituals and abstract art, as well as African and Western cultures. As I learned more about the museum and its goals, I clearly understand why Nelson’s sculpture was selected for this site.
The museum interprets the Black experience from the 1800s to the present in both in the United States and African communities around the world. Approximately 6,000 objects are on display including photographs, personal papers, books, audio and video clips, art works, archaeological materials, textiles, furniture, musical instruments, and clothing. Museum visitors can also learn about African American history and culture through film screenings, educational programs, workshops and lectures and, by appointment, peruse the museum library’s 5,000 volumes.
Even though the two story museum is relatively small by Smithsonian standards, it hosts more than 37,000 visitors annually. Revolving exhibitions are on display in all three first-floor galleries. On the second level is the Museum Library, a resource supporting work on all aspects of the history and culture of the African Diaspora in the Western hemisphere. The library is one of 20 branch libraries in the Smithsonian Institute Library system. This branch has over 3,500 books and nearly 100 periodical titles in various formats with emphasis on the Upper South, African American women, slavery and abolitionist, and religion and the African American community.
Originally established in 1967 as the Anacostia Neighbood Museum in the old converted Carver movie theatre on Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue, SE, the museum is one of the first federally funded community-based museums. Located in one of DC’s largely African American neighborhood, it first served as a Smithsonian outreach museum. In 1987, it moved to its current site and, in 2006, changed its name to the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum to reflect the museum’s increased mandate to examine, preserve and interpret African American history and culture, not only locally and regionally, but nationally and internationally as well.
The exhibits in the museum have evolved during the more than 41 year history of its existence. The first exhibition included a space suit, zoo and general story. As its importance as a venue for African American history and culture has grown, exhibitions have included the history of early Anacostia, the African American West, the African American church, African American scientists and inventors, blacks in the colonial period, African American holidays and celebrations, Black Baseball in the District of Columbia, and numerous other relevant themes.
Despite the museum’s evolution, it retains strong community outreach programs. These include a public education initiative designed to teach the fundamentals of collection and preservation to individuals and special interest communities such as churches, universities and social organizations. In a related effort, the museum offers workshops and instructional material on genealogical research and recording oral histories. Additionally, the museum provides an array of programs and other resources for educators, students and researchers including on- and off-site workshops, lectures and field trips and its “Online Academy”.
The museum’s Community Documentation Project provides documentation of the history and ongoing changes in communities found east of the Anacostia River. Subjects of interest include gentrification, displacement and loss of families and social groups, the impact of globalization and technology change on community life, the loss of traditional means of employment and income, and the paradox of increasing mobility for some in the midst of declining opportunities for others, (i.e., economic disparity).
As I left the museum, I paused again to take in Nelson’s Real Justice sculpture. According to his website, Nelson’s artistic pursuits is concerned with confronting the issue of African American identity with its troubled double soul, or what W.E.B. Dubois called the soul of a black African and the soul of an American slave conjoined in the same body. Nelson feels that public sculpture within the black community will most directly address the issue. Through a different medium, perhaps the presence of the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum in this African American museum is confronting the same issue. To that end, Real Justice is a fitting introduction to the museum.
If you go
1901 Fort Place, SE
Washington, DC 20020
Main Office: 202-633-4820
Open Every Day, 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM
Except December 25th
General Information and Directions - http://anacostia.si.edu/
Free tours are offered, except holidays, for groups of 15 or more by calling 202-633-4870. For self-guided kid-centered tours, call the museum’s education department at 202-633-4844.