Well, aren't you a parasite for sore eyes.
After a seven-month closure, the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum reopened in October with a rejuvenated look and new leadership. Dr. Melanie Adams took the helm of the museum in August.
Kojo sits down with Adams to talk about the $4.5 million renovation and her vision for the museum’s future. Plus, they’ll discuss the current exhibit, “A Right to the City,” which traces the history of neighborhood change and civic engagement in the District.
Produced by Cydney Grannan
- Melanie Adams Director, Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum; @SmithsonianACM
Anacostia in “A Right to the City” Exhibition
“A Right to the City” is on view at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum till April 20, 2020.
Chinatown in "A Right to the City" Exhibition
“A Right to the City” is on view at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum till April 20, 2020.
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. The Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum has seen a lot of change this year. It closed for seven months for a $4.5 million improvement project, and the museum also has a new director. She joins us now, in studio. Melanie Adams is her name. She is the director of the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum. Thank you so much for joining us.
MELANIE ADAMSThank you for having me.
NNAMDIYou were selected as the director of this museum in August of this year. Before that, you worked with historical societies in Minnesota and Michigan in various capacities. Tell us a little bit more about your background and about what drew you to the Anacostia Community Museum.
ADAMSSure, sure. So, my career path is a little different, I think, for most museum professionals. I started in higher education student affairs, so I spent some time in student activities and residential life, and then transitioned to the museum field. And what really attracted me to the museum field was the community work. I started off at the Missouri Historical Society, and really had the opportunity to develop their community engagement programs. Again, very similar to the Smithsonian, it's a free museum, and it's community-based, and really served as an anchor in that community.
ADAMSSo, I was there developing and implementing programs. And, really, some of the work I'm most proud of that I did there was really after the incident in Ferguson with Mike Brown and really serving as a community space to be able to welcome the community and have a lot of those very difficult conversations around community and policing.
ADAMSAfter leaving the Missouri Historical Society, I spent three winters, as we like to call them in (laugh) Minnesota. And, in Minnesota, I was actually in charge of 26 historic sites. So...
NNAMDIWhich is why I said you left a gig that involved managing 26 historic sites. You were deputy director of the Minnesota Historical Society. Why did you decide to leave that to come manage one museum?
ADAMSRight. I enjoyed my time in Minnesota. It was wonderful, and it gave me some great...
NNAMDIExcept for the winters.
ADAMSExcept for the winters, yeah, so it gave me some great experiences. But my heart has always been in community-based museums. And throughout the museum field, the Anacostia is just really well-known. It really is a foundational museum, as you know, founded in 1967 by the Smithsonian. The first director was John Kinard, and he's really a lion in the field in terms of the work that he did at Anacostia Community Museum with his staff. So, to have the opportunity to come back and continue that legacy and tradition, I just couldn't pass it up.
NNAMDIAs you mentioned, the Anacostia Community Museum is not the first Smithsonian museum that would come to mind. But, as you pointed out, within the museum world, the ACM is very well-known. What do you see as the mission of the museum and its role within the Smithsonian?
ADAMSRight. And I think that's a great question, because I think a lot of people only look at the museums on The Mall when they think of the Smithsonian. And, really, Anacostia Community Museum's unique value proposition among the different 19 museums is that we are a community-based museum and we are able to provide the stories of the people of D.C. And we've created a new mission and vision, and our mission really talks more about illuminating and amplifying the voices of the community.
ADAMSSo, for example, our current exhibit up is called The Right to the City. And so that is six different neighborhoods throughout the D.C. region. And we're looking at change in those different neighborhoods. And what makes that exhibit maybe unique from other exhibits and other museums is, really, we're basing it on over 200 oral histories that our curator did with the community, and then based the exhibit off of those stories.
ADAMSAnd so that's really, as we're looking at what makes us unique, it's that we are hyper-local, so we're telling those stories of D.C. But what I like to say is you can take a Right to the City and put it in any urban area in the world, change the names of the neighborhoods and get the same stories of gentrification, of educational inequality, of issues related to access to transportations to grocery stores. So, it's a very universal story.
NNAMDIIt's the 50th anniversary exhibit of the museum, and it's called, as you pointed out, The Right to the City. I'd like to play a clip of two people who were interviewed about change in the Anacostia neighborhood. The first speaker we'll hear is Sheila Cogan, a former Southeast D.C. resident who was a member of the first integrated class at Philip Sousa Junior High School. The second voice is Rosalind Styles, a native Anacostian and longtime neighborhood advocate.
SHEILA COGANReal estate agents who saw a chance to make a profit brought black buyers into the community. And as soon as one house was sold, white flight ensued within a very, very short period of time. The entire community had changed from a white community to a black community.
ROSALIND STYLESAnd then it became the worst place to go. It became where, oh, you know, your fear to be over there, to live there, to visit there. You know, oh, don't go to Anacostia. And then it became, you can't talk to those people in Anacostia. And so the perception of our neighborhood deteriorated.
NNAMDIA Right to the City also looks at how Chinatown has changed. Here's a resident named Harry Chow, talking about how that neighborhood has become less and less, well, Chinese, in recent years.
HARRY CHOWI looked around Chinatown and I see, you know, Starbuck's, and I see it written in Chinese. And all the various restaurants, you know, like legal seafood written in Chinese. I kept thinking to myself, they want Chinatown to be Chinatown, but without its people.
NNAMDIMelanie Adams, what kinds of conversations is this exhibit sparking?
ADAMSWell, it's interesting that you ask that question. I had the opportunity to be in the exhibit this morning with a group of school kids. And they were asking the most amazing questions, because they're living the change right now. They were students from Ward 7 and 8. They're seeing the change in their neighborhood. And so I think it really gives us these opportunities to have discussions about how and why change happens, and how people throughout time responded to the change.
ADAMSAnd that's what's so wonderful when students of all ages go through the exhibit and they see a lot of the things that were happening then are happening now. And they're able to see, well, how did the community respond to the change that was happening, good or bad, in their neighborhood? And how can we take those lessons learned and carry them on today?
NNAMDIAnd, you know, I can see those same kids coming over to the vicinity of the Capital One Arena and looking around and saying: why is this neighborhoods even called Chinatown? Because the Chinese presence is no longer as it was. As we've mentioned, you were named director in the middle of renovations to the Anacostia Community Museum. What changes were made to the museum during its seven-month closure? Let's start with what was done to the exterior of the museum.
ADAMSSure. Well, all of the changes that were made for the museum really were to enhance the visitor experience So, to the exterior, we did some things related to parking. But, really, the important part was we opened up and created a plaza area which will really allow us to move a lot of our programming outside once the weather turns nice, but really activate that outdoor space and make us look more open and available to the community.
ADAMSDuring our opening weekend, we had a few events out there, and it was nice, because the community just walked over, because they said, oh, it looks like things are happening here. So, really, preparing now to begin in April or May of looking at what types of things can we do out there in that space.
ADAMSSome other things that are already happening is we are interpreting the Anacostia watershed. And a lot of our environmental work is happening out there. So, we have a demonstration garden which will be wonderful once again spring hits and we're able to talk with visitors about that. But we also have some panels that talk a little bit about the environmental features that had been put in during that time.
NNAMDIAnd what changes were made to the inside of the museum? I remember attending a wedding inside that museum (laugh) some years ago. Can you still accommodate a wedding?
ADAMSYes, we can still accommodate a wedding. And we have a wonderful refreshed lobby space. It's very cosmetic, but we also have a few nice additions. We have wonderful plaques up now that are in honor of John Kinard, our original director. And we also have our mission and vision public out in the public, because I think that's really important for people to know and understand the space that they're walking into.
ADAMSWe also have a new area, which is our Sunburst Lounge, because they have the Smithsonian logo in there. But also, that's really an opportunity for the community to come in, relax and enjoy the space, but it's also a great place for us to showcase our community documentation work. So, work that our photographer has done through the years documenting different events and people in the community. We also have a wonderful community mural in that space that is based on some of the quilts in our exhibit. So, it really is just a refreshed, wonderful space that welcomes in the community.
NNAMDIThe museum's closure for renovation came as a bit of a surprise to some people. Only three weeks' notice was given. Why did that happen so suddenly?
ADAMSThat, I have no idea. I started (laugh) in August. I had the opportunity to visit the museum, actually, before I interviewed and accepted the position, so I think I came the last week in February. But, as you know, with construction projects, timing and everything, so it was probably unfortunate...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Well, I think it may have had to do with last winter's partial federal government shutdown...
NNAMDI...because it threw a wrench into the museum's planning capabilities. All of the Smithsonian Museums were closed for most of January due to this shutdown. But what was it like to take on this pivotal role while the museum was actually closed?
ADAMSRight. It was both good and bad. You know, I say, you know, at our opening, I talked about how I'm welcoming people in and, you know, but I really can't take the credit, because I came in August. But I think it really was a wonderful opportunity for us to really be able to take a step back, revisit our mission and vision, determine who we want to be moving forward, and then opening a building that reflects that new mission and vision. So, construction projects are always hard, but I'm happy ours was only seven months, and we now have a great new space.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we will return to this conversation with Melanie Adams, director of the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Melanie Adams, director of the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum. She's the new director. When this museum was undergoing renovations, there were a few satellite popup exhibits throughout the District. Tell us about those.
ADAMSSure. Well, it was a wonderful opportunity, even though we were closed, to kind of share the content from A Right to the City in the neighborhood. So, the D.C. Public Library has just been a wonderful partner, and we were actually able to put satellite exhibits in four of the six neighborhoods that are actually in the exhibit. So, that's been really wonderful.
ADAMSAnd, in addition to having the popup exhibit, we also sent out our docents. So, a docent was also in the library, as well, talking with patrons about the exhibit. So, hopefully, it encouraged people to move around the city and visit all four of them.
NNAMDIThe museum has a local -- at times, hyper-local -- focus, and this exhibit is no exception. How do you think the ACM appeals to visitors who are not from this area?
ADAMSAnd I think the way it really appeals is even if you're not from the D.C. area, the stories that we're telling in that exhibit really resonate with people, regardless of where they're from. And I think some of the examples from the clips you've shown, a lot of cities have a Chinatown. And a lot of those Chinatowns, the same thing is happening in those that are happening here in the D.C. region, as our oral history spoke about.
ADAMSAlso, if you look at the history of a lot of the neighborhoods that are in the exhibit, it's things around educational equity, when you're looking at areas such as Adams Morgan or Anacostia. It's around development when you're looking at neighborhoods like Southwest or Shaw. It's about transportation when you're looking at neighborhood like Brookland. So, even if you are not from D.C., you can go to that exhibit and still have conversations about, oh, this happened in Newark, New Jersey in the 1950s or '60s, or St. Louis, Missouri or Oakland, California.
NNAMDIYou know, that's a lot like the show we do here every day, where we try to take people all around the region so they can see what they think of as differences in various communities, and are surprised when they see the similarities that they have and how those communities are developing. Lonnie Bunch, the 14th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, has said that he wants to increase the diversity of the visitors at the 19 Smithsonian Museums. He also wants to encourage more people to visit the Anacostia Community Museum. How are you hoping to draw more visitors to the museum, and do you agree with his goal of increasing the diversity of visitors?
ADAMSWell, first, we love that. (laugh) We love to hear that the secretary is very supportive of the work we do at the Anacostia Community Museum. And I think really the way we're looking at expanding our visitation, I think there are a variety of different ways. First of all, really looking at our K through 12 education program, that is a priority for the new secretary in terms of how we're working with K through 12, specifically the D.C. public schools.
ADAMSAnd I think in connection to the program you had kind of before me talking about 1619 and its use in public schools, I think a place like the Anacostia Community Museum is a great way to be able to continue talking about those stories around the legacy of slavery. I also think it's very similar to the conversation we were having in terms of how do we talk about the Anacostia Community Museum being hyper-local and still resonating with people outside of D.C. So, really, explaining there is a lot of great history happening in the museums on The Mall. There is a lot of great history happening at Anacostia, as well, and how do we make sure we're making sure our visitors know all of their different options when they come to the D.C. region?
NNAMDILet's talk about Lonnie Bunch behind his back. (laugh) How do you think the selection of Lonnie Bunch as the new secretary will or will not change the Smithsonian?
ADAMSWell, I think it's already changed the Smithsonian in a variety of different ways. Obviously, he's the first African American director, which is important, but I think from a director's standpoint, what's almost more important is he was one of us. And I'm going to say us, even though I didn't start until August. But also, it so resonated with the field. I remember when it was announced, like, Facebook blew up. Everyone has just been, I think, rooting for the secretary ever since he has been announced.
ADAMSAnd so I think it was a celebration throughout the field, if that makes sense, because he...
NNAMDI(overlapping) That's what I interpreted it to mean when you said he's one of us. He's a museum guy. (laugh)
ADAMSWell, right. He's a museum guy. He's a director, and I think that has really resonated with museums around the country, because he understands who we are, and he has a wonderful vision of what we can be.
NNAMDISamir Meghelli, the curator of A Right to the City, tweeted: call our D.C. storytelling hotline, developed with American University's Benjamin Stokes, to listen to oral histories we collected. But also leave your own D.C. story. The number is 202-355-7288. Let me give that number again: 202-355-7288. I think that's important, because people may not know that they can add their own stories to A Right to the City.
ADAMSRight. And that's a wonderful way, again, to expand the exhibit beyond the museum walls. So, as Samir, our curator, said, you can call that number. You can either listen to stories that we've collected, or you can add your own. So, it's a great way for us to kind of continue to add to the narrative.
NNAMDILooking ahead, what are some of your goals for the Anacostia Community Museum?
ADAMSI think some of my goals really are a lot of the ones that the secretary has articulated. It really is: how do we make sure the Anacostia Community Museum is seen as an integral part, not only of the Smithsonian, but of the D.C. region? I really want to make sure we are really strong on the education front, in terms of how are we educating young students about what's happened in the past and how that impacts their future. Which is why I was so happy to see that group of students in today.
ADAMSAnd I also think, how can we continue to be a good partner with the community? The work we do cannot be done without the help of our community partners. And so, how do we build upon the great work that is already happening and continue to do that as the community around us continues to change?
NNAMDIYou mentioned the young people who were there. Are you hoping to gear any initiatives specifically toward youth?
ADAMSYes. We actually are looking at how we -- we're looking at developing and implementing new K through 12 programs. I think, a lot of times, because our attendance is a little smaller, we can do some things that are a little different in terms of how we're welcoming students into our space, doing more guided experiences, doing more role-playing, more interactive ways to bring history to life for them. And so we are really looking at how do we develop that using the content we have, because I think people always look at our exhibits and think that's our only content. But we have an amazing archives and collection, so it's really important for us to look to that space for our stories, as well.
NNAMDIAre there any initiatives or programs happening at the museum that we should know about for the year 2020?
ADAMSYes. We are very excited to announce, starting in January, Tuesday, January 7th, we're going to be open late on Tuesday evenings. So, we'll be open till 8:00, so that's a great way to invite the community in. But in addition to just being open to allow people to go through the exhibits, we're also going to have programs. So, you can count on every Tuesday night, coming to the Anacostia Community Museum. You can participate in a program, or you can just check out the exhibit.
NNAMDICan you give us any insight into the exhibit that follows A Right to the City? It's my understanding that it has something to do with food.
ADAMSYes, yes. The tentative title is D.C. Eats, but do not hold us to that. (laugh) That's the working title. But, essentially, what it's looking at is food history and culture in the D.C. region, with a special emphasis on issues related to food insecurity, food justice, food deserts, school lunches. So, really looking at not only the celebratory side of food and how it brings communities together, but what does it mean when certain communities do not have access, or equal access to the same type of food as in other places? So, the same curator, Samir, is working hard on collecting oral histories of a lot of the individuals and organizations that do that work, and then framing the exhibit around those stories.
NNAMDIWell, you have lived in this region before, but how can a museum, specifically a community museum, help D.C. do a good job of telling its story beyond it being the seat of government and a place that's getting gentrified everywhere?
ADAMSRight. And I think that it's interesting that you ask that, because until you move here, you don't realize the two D.C.s. Because, as a tourist, you do only think of it as the federal government. And so I think that's why it's really exciting for us to be able to attract people who want to learn more about actually D.C. and the history of D.C., and how we were developed as a city.
ADAMSI mean, I think, you know, getting people east of the river is always a little bit of a challenge, but I think one of the nice things is once people come and visit our museum, they're overwhelmed and wowed by the stories that they didn't know. And these are even local people who say, oh, I didn't know some of the stories about my own neighborhood. So, really encouraging people to explore kind of the unknown and learn a little bit more about the D.C. region.
NNAMDIDoes that mean that, at some point, the museum will explore even some of the lesser-known communities in D.C.? The six communities that you're exploring now are -- at least for residents of D.C. -- fairly well-known. How about some of the less known places?
ADAMS(overlapping) Right. And I think we are always looking at how...
NNAMDI(overlapping) The hidden gems, if you will.
ADAMSRight, the hidden gems, how we're always telling those stories. So, we are open to ideas and suggestions. And I think I agree, we want to make sure we're telling some of the stories that aren't as well-known. But that being said, I think even the neighborhoods that people think they know, they don't. Like, an interesting example was Adams Morgan. And I just originally asked the curator, so, where does that name come from? And he's like, oh, it was two different schools.
ADAMSAnd so, I think, you know, even people who may live in this region may not always know the stories of how those communities were developed and formed.
NNAMDIMelanie Adams, she is the director of the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum. The exhibit there right now, A Right to the City, is on view until April 20th, 2020. Thank you so much for joining us, and good luck to you.
ADAMSThank you. Thank you for having me.
NNAMDIThis segment about the Anacostia Museum was produced by Cydney Grannan. And our conversation about the 1619 Project was produced by Maura Currie. Coming up tomorrow, the D.C. dining scene is thriving, but don't forget the burbs, where a cadre of largely immigrant chefs and restaurateurs are also serving up standout fare.
NNAMDIAnd next week is our Winter Book Show, and we want to know, what was the best book you read this year? Record a voice memo on your phone, no more than 30 seconds, and send it to email@example.com with the subject line: Best Book. We'll play a selection of your responses next week. Until tomorrow, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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