What kind of relationships should museums have with their surroundings? How can they best interact and collaborate with their neighbors? The Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum was one of the first institutions to take a community-centered approach to curating and public programming when it first opened in 1967, and this innovative method stays with us more than 50 years later, expanding the museum’s experiences outside of the museum walls.
For decades, there’s been debate over what the role and responsibility of museums are; and slowly, we’re moving from an inward focus on growth of knowledge and collections, to an outward focus on providing educational services to our audiences. More and more, there’s a nearly universal notion that museums exist to serve the public; and ACM has been meeting people where they are by increasing access to online content, and most notably, developing creative off-site programs.
One of the programs exemplifying this ethos is the museum’s URBAN ADVENTURE KIT series – a yearly part-scavenger hunt/part-podcast/part-food crawl experience co-curated with local celebrities, that connects participants with unique places around the city. 2022’s celebrity guest? Beloved chef and humanitarian, José Andrés! Together, we’ve created a food justice journey inspired by the museum’s current exhibition “Food for the People: Eating and Activism in Greater Washington,” and starting in June, participants will be able to purchase their kit with the necessary supplies (and swag!) to guide them through different locations in Washington D.C., where they’ll get access to free food samples from different local businesses, and find QR codes linking to audio messages from José Andrés himself.
ACM’s first guest in 2021 was acclaimed chef and TV personality, Carla Hall, who led folks to four D.C. spots that deeply influenced her views on food justice and identity, and she designed a home-cooking challenge for participants to experiment with one of her favorite recipes: Hoppin’ John.
By guiding participants on a journey of Washington, D.C., ACM encourages everyone to see their city as a place of exploration, wonder, and reflection. It encourages people to become historians and advocates on their own terms: by learning first-hand about the deep social justice issues confronting our communities, the local initiatives working toward solving them, unraveling the stories behind seemingly ordinary places, and in the process, kindling enthusiasm and meaningful engagement with our home.
Another important project ACM is developing is a custom app-based tour about the history and current-day issue of affordable housing in Southwest D.C., combining real world experiences and handheld media with a theatrical flair. Unlike a typical exhibition, this self-guided audio-drama experience will take place in the SW Waterfront neighborhood and will be supplemented by a website, video version of the tour, and site-specific installations. This project is informed by local playwrights, sound designers, and a Community Advisory Group whose personal connection to the neighborhood and unique expertise, provide ACM and production partners, Walking Cinema, with external independent input, integral to the project’s substance and authenticity.
The last couple of years have pushed museums to find imaginative ways to connect with the public: from online concerts and at-home activities, to outdoor exhibits and public space activations. But it takes a constant and more generous effort to reimagine museums overall. Keeping museums open (and open safely) has been a massive challenge as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has accelerated the shift from the traditional museum experience, and it has demonstrated that digital and off-site work is more than just a way of increasing visitor numbers.
Moving forward and true to its legacy, ACM will continue to innovate in the field, sharing our vibrant local history, questioning the dynamics of power, celebrating local creativity, and proving that the museum is more than just the building, it’s the people.