The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
It Takes a Village: Anniversary of the Anacostia Museum Opening
Today marks the forty-fourth anniversary of the opening of the Anacostia Community Museum (ACM), then called the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum. The ACM opened in 1967 at the old Carver Theater in the Anacostia section of Washington, DC.
The “experimental community museum” was first suggested by the Smithsonian’s eighth Secretary S. Dillon Ripley. His goal was to create a neighborhood museum that would connect the larger Smithsonian to the local community it serves. In 1967, the Smithsonian found its location at the Carver Theater in southeast Washington, DC. Known as the Anacostia section of Washington, local community activists and groups quickly joined in and began the process of creating this museum. The idea put forward by the Smithsonian was that the community museum could act as a satellite museum hosting exhibits and collections pieces from the larger museums on the National Mall. However, community leaders were more interested in establishing a space for exhibitions and programs that explored topics including urban issues, the history of Anacostia, as well as African American culture and art both nationally and locally. The varying opinions resulted in debates about the museum’s mission, but the museum’s programs gradually moved in the direction the encouraged by the community leaders.
The Carver Theater was previously a four hundred seat movie theater, so a lot of work and elbow grease was needed to turn it into a museum. Volunteers from all over the community chipped in and helped renovate the space by taking out the seats and leveling the floor. Youths from the Trailblazers, a summer program for teens, Neighborhood Youth Corps, and Work Scholarship Programs teens helped with the scraping, plastering, painting and indoor-outdoor decorating. The University of Iowa Demonstration Elementary School donated colorful murals, and the Trailblazers turned the museum lobby into a graphic arts gallery by taking and displaying before and after photographs of the Theater and Anacostia neighborhood. Volunteers also spruced up the surrounding landscape by planting trees and shrubs and painting store and house fronts along the museum’s street.
The grand opening on September 15 included an eighty-four piece band and a block party with speeches. Even Uncle Beazley, the fiberglass Triceratops from the NBC television movie The Enormous Egg, made an appearance. Normally housed on the National Mall outside the Museum of Natural History (now the National Museum of Natural History), Uncle Beazley temporarily spent some time hanging out in the neighborhood and provided local children with an excellent place to climb.
Six exhibits were on display at the opening of the museum, and each encouraged visitor participation. They included a Mercury space capsule; a reproduction of an 1890 Anacostia store that visitors could walk through; a small theater with a closed-circuit television; natural history collections stored in a shoebox collection display; skeletons that could be disassembled and assembled; and an indoor zoo that featured four squirrel monkeys, two raccoons, a double-head yellow Amazon parrot, Java and Zebra finches, bull snake, and a fresh water aquarium.
After the opening, museum director John Kinard, a native Washingtonian, minister, and civil rights activist, set plans in motion to rotate exhibits with the help of exhibits staff from the Museum of History and Technology, now the National Museum of American History. The museum also would continue to include community input on the exhibits’ themes and incorporate theater and modern dance productions to involve the residents of Anacostia in museum programs.
Today the Anacostia Community Museum holds onto to these early goals as a part of their mission. Though the museum was moved to a new, larger location in 1987, it continues to work with the local community and explore the issues of urban living, race, history, and culture.