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Museum spends millions in renovations to emphasize community stories

A community garden, a patio, and a standing exhibit decorated with artifacts are just some of the new renovations found at the Anacostia Community Museum in Southeast Washington.

Since its reopening last month, visitors who come to the remodeled museum are able to see what $3.5 million in renovations looks like with a brand-new entrance, an internet lounge, and a multi-functioning plaza in front of the museum.

When The Wash visited this week, some areas were still under construction but visitors were welcomed by the fresh new redesign and open space to move throughout the exhibitions.

Anacostia Community Museum, a branch of the Smithsonian, has served the area East of the River for 52 years and has a core mission to tell the history of Southeast, D.C., and residents who’ve lived there then and now.

The museum was closed in March 2019 for renovations costing $3.5 million. Improvements have also been made to the facility’s lighting and HVAC. Kristen Johnson/The Wash.

“This is the first museum to come across the river off the mall. People were asking for knowledge, and this museum came about,” said Myra Hines, a lifelong Ward 8 resident and Smithsonian volunteer.

Hines said the museum has always kept the community first and with the new renovations is able to focus on other aspects important to the neighborhood, like the community garden.

Before closing for renovations, the Anacostia Community Museum admits they were struggling with the number of visitors. Now, reopened after seven months, crowds are back, and staff is hopeful that the renovations will continue to attract people from near and far.

“The renovations have brought the museum out into the neighborhood and is focusing on the watershed, the native plants, gardening,” Hines said. “We’re just getting bigger and better.”

Visitors’ mixed reactions

“Before this I didn’t really go to the museums because most of them are downtown near the monuments,” said Tristan Dyson, a resident of the Deanwood neighborhood and mother of two.

Numbers in visitors is expected to spike with the new renovations. Kristen Johnson/The Wash.

Dyson visited the museum with her two small children who played and pointed to decorations and TV screens playing the speeches Martin Luther King, Jr. and documentaries.

“It’s better for me to come here because it’s closer, and I don’t like the high traffic, tourist areas, they’re crowded.” Dyson said. “I like having space and being able to move around.”

Another sightseer, Michael Henderson said “this is my first time here, although it feels familiar. Now that I have a better understanding of this place and the area, it has a lot more gravity to me.”

Henderson was visiting the museum with his classmates from a Sociology class at The University of the District of Columbia (UDC) and prior to the visit, he had only ever been to the museums on the National Mall.

“I’ve been here before and when I first came it was pretty empty,” said Iyanna Morgan, a visitor and D.C. resident, when asked about the new renovations. “It’s [the museum] changed a lot, it’s brighter and more inviting. I actually want to come here more. So, I like it.”

Visitors can enjoy interactive exhibitions and screenings at the Anacostia Community Museum. Kristen Johnson/The Wash.

UDC Sociology Professor, Kimberly Monroe, is impressed by the renovations but worries that some important aspects are not as prominent.

“They changed the display of the founding director of the museum. They’ve made him much smaller versus before,” said Monroe.

Monroe explained that in her experience, museums that have preserved spaces of history seem more personal like the National Park Service operated Frederick Douglass Home in the Anacostia neighborhood.

“I think this one is a lot more – I don’t want to say commercialized. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, there’s just different organizations handling the history so, you can leave out a lot with that,” Monroe said.

‘A Right to the City’

Chief curator Dr. Samir Meghelli directed the current standing exhibit in the museum titled, A Right to the City.

The exhibit emphasizes the stories of six different D.C. neighborhoods and the ordinary people who helped shape their histories through the fight for equality, public education, health, transit, and jobs. The exhibit also raises questions about the future of D.C.’s native residents in a rapidly changing environment.

The standing exhibit will be on display until April 2020 and it highlights the episodes in history where people advocated for the betterment of the city. Kristen Johnson/The Wash

According to the museum’s history, Anacostia’s residents have always fought for its interests and continue to advocate for themselves. Since its founding, the museum has opened its doors to local residents with activities, speakers, traveling exhibitions and screenings all relevant to current issues and victories of communities throughout the city.

Anacostia Community Museum administration released their Strategic Plan for 2019-2024 with goals to continue serving the people and telling their stories.

“We have to stimulate this community and not wait for someone else to stimulate it,” Hines said.

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