What happens when people can’t visit a museum? Bring the museum to the people! This is the attitude our staff took in serving our audiences during the pandemic. The biggest project we undertook during this challenging year was redesigning an indoor exhibit called Men of Change so that it could live outdoors in Ward 7’s Deanwood neighborhood. Our reinvented version is called Men of Change: Taking it to the Streets.
With this simple change in location came an unexpected “a-ha” moment. We discovered new audiences that may never have never visited the museum— pedestrians on their way to the Metro, students on their way to school, or neighbors picking up free meals at the Recreation Center. But the most surprising new audience was the population of local residents incarcerated at the D.C. Jail several miles away from Deanwood.
The D.C. Jail houses a satellite library branch run by D.C. Public Library (DCPL) — a Deanwood partner for the installation of Men of Change. This relationship has enabled the Anacostia Community Museum to serve incarcerated audiences through the use of the newly issued tablets at the D.C. Jail. During pre-pandemic times, librarians provided books to jail residents who could check them out. But, as we learned from DCPL, this program was temporarily canceled. To stop the spread of COVID, incarcerated jail residents were placed on twenty-three hours per day lockdown and all enrichment programs had been canceled — including book lending.
During the pandemic, people across the world felt confined in their homes — but perhaps none more so than those incarcerated in our prisons and jails. DCPL told us of one accommodation the city had given the jail residents to help alleviate tension — 1,000 digital tablets loaded with education content, e-books, and a messaging system to the outside world. This meant that DCPL was able to replace their book program with digital media and serve almost every incarcerated individual in the facility.
Perhaps, we thought, we could put Men of Change on these tablets to provide a sort of message in a bottle for these folks who were hurting. In some small way, we could say “We see you. We care.” The content of the exhibition was perfect — inspiring stories, quotes, and photos of Black men from all eras who found cracks in a system designed to hold them back. Maybe the exhibit could provide a bit of encouragement during an incredibly frustrating time.
The exhibition (which was created by the Smithsonian Institute Traveling Exhibition Service) already had a website, but we needed a product that didn’t depend on internet access. We settled on the idea of creating a video tour of the exhibit using voices from the Deanwood community. We wanted to help the jail residents go on a field trip in their minds — to imagine themselves taking a walk through the neighborhood, seeing African American strength through generations, in a city that looks familiar.
The video tour of Men of Change: Taking it to the Streets can be viewed here: https://s.si.edu/MOCVideo
The existence of these tablets gave us a portal to reach men and women that we never had access to before. It was sobering to think that these individuals were incarcerated just three miles from the museum, but could not visit.
Just as the country is opening back up, the D.C. Jail has also lifted its lockdown — just three weeks ago. All reports seem to indicate that jail residents will not lose access to the tablets that became their lifeline during the pandemic. Likewise, the Anacostia Community Museum will not lose the inspiration to look past the walls of its building — to take the museum to the people, wherever they reside.
Men of Change: Taking it to the Streets will be open in Deanwood until Aug. 31, 2021. The starting point is 4800 Meade Street NE at the Ron Brown High School. Audio tour: https://s.si.edu/AudioTour
UPDATE: The Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum reopens to the public on Friday, Aug 6 featuring the main gallery exhibition, “Food for the People: Eating & Activism in Greater Washington.” The gallery show is an in-depth companion to the introductory “Food for the People” outdoor exhibit currently available for viewing on the front plaza of the museum. Located at 1901 Fort Pl SE, the museum hours will be Tuesday-Saturday 11 a.m.-4 p.m. More details are available at https://anacostia.si.edu.