Friday, September 15th, 2017 marks the 50th Anniversary of the opening of the Anacostia Community Museum. Originally named the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, Secretary Ripley envisioned this as a place to reach out to black residents of Washington, DC who were not seeing themselves in the museums on the Mall. Reporting on the opening of the museum, Secretary Ripley writes that his vision is deep involvement of the local community and “involvement can be created only if it really is their museum. It must be on the spot, participated in by the people who live there.” He believed that “for of all our people these are the ones who most deserve the fun of being in a museum.”
Anacostia was selected because there was an “instant enthusiasm” amongst the local residents, and they were already organized into the Greater Anacostia Peoples corporation. The corporation became an integral part of the museum’s advisory committee. Marion Conover Hope, a member of the Greater Anacostia Peoples Corporation, an activist, and a social worker, handpicked founding director John Kinard for the museum. As he tells it, Ms. Hope invited Kinard over for dinner and grilled him over dinner. After having all of her questions answered, she said “Listen, Mr. Kinard, we have decided that we are going to develop a museum out here in Anacostia, and we want you to be the director of it." At the time, he did not know anything about museums, but Ms. Hope had her mind made up. By the end of the evening, Kinard had agreed to see Charles Blitzer of the Smithsonian. It took a couple of weeks to set up that meeting, and while Kinard was waiting, Ms. Hope was working away. When Kinard finally walked into that meeting, Charles Blitzer, Assistant Secretary for History and Art, welcomed him with, “Thank you for taking the job, Mr. Kinard.” In his oral history, Kinard reflected, “So I said, ‘All right.’ I don’t know why I said it, but I said, ‘All right.’”
On July 5th 1967, Charles Blitzer gave John Kinard the keys to the old run-down Carver Theater and the mad race to turn it into a museum began. When the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum opened on September 15th 1967, it featured an array of exhibits from across the Smithsonian: a Mercury space capsule, natural history collections in a shoebox display, an indoor zoo, and Uncle Beazley – a fiberglass Triceratops – spent some time at the Museum.
But as the neighborhood and the museum advisory committee figured out just what they could do, their focus quickly turned to how the museum could grapple with the problems the community saw in their neighborhood. Urban history and black American history quickly took center stage. The 1969 exhibition The Rat: Man’s Invited Affliction highlighted this shift. Instigated by Anacostia children, John Kinard and Zora Martin Felton started researching rats. After research trips to the NIH with neighborhood children, and presenting their findings to the neighborhood advisory committee, the museum created an exhibit that explored rodent infestation and reflected the interests of an urban neighborhood battling an increasing problem.
As it has grown and changed over the years, the Anacostia Community Museum has made space for a planning site for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and refocused on highlighting stories of the Anacostia community, and urban history as National Museum of African American History and Culture has carried the national mantle of black American history forward.
The grand opening on September 15 included an eighty-four piece band and a block party with speeches. This Friday’s events will be no less celebratory, with many musical and dance performances, the Garfield Elementary School Band, and a program honoring John Kinard, the museum’s founding director along with a new exhibition: Your Community, Your Story: Celebrating Five Decades of the Anacostia Community Museum, 1967–2017.
- Anacostia Community Museum records at the Smithsonian Institution Archives.
- Historic images of the Anacostia Community Museum from the Smithsonian Institution Archives.
- It Takes a Village: Opening the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
- Design in Archives: Anacostia Community Museum, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
- Louise Daniel Hutchinson, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
- John Kinard: African-Americans at the Smithsonian.
- History of the Anacostia Community Museum.