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Smithsonian’s Community Anacostia Museum: What’s a Museum Without Visitors?

On Friday, March 14, the museum closed its doors to the public. Like the rest of the world, our staff was stunned by the sudden seriousness of COVID-19 and the paralysis that it caused. The education staff went into high gear — immediately canceling school field trips and special events. “Everything out there stopped, but we never quit,” recounted Jenelle Cooper, Community Engagement Coordinator.

After the initial adjustment period and the realization that the pandemic was not going away, staff wondered how they were going to stay connected to their audiences.

What is a museum without visitors?

Thousands of museums across the country were wondering the same thing. The pandemic caused a seismic shift in the core function of all public-facing arts organizations. It was essentially an identity crisis. As a museum consultant, I wrote about the need for museums to let go of old norms and begin to empathize with their audiences’ new pandemic needs in a blog post entitled “Empathetic Audience Engagement During the Apocalypse.

As a knee-jerk reaction to instability and financial survival, many organizations turned inward and adopted a “wait it out” approach. The Anacostia Community Museum has a long history of facing outward towards the needs of their communities, so education staff got to work brainstorming the kinds of programming that would be appropriate for the moment.

The museum’s first pandemic program was not a history panel or an exhibit lecture; it was virtual workshop called “Just Breathe.” Sensing that their audiences needed practical strategies to manage stress, educators invited a holistic healer to lead zoom audiences in a series of breathing exercises. This was an outside the box idea for a museum. But it worked. People responded with gratitude that the museum had provided this little respite from the chaos. “After that first program, I think we all felt like we could breathe a bit easier. We had learned how to pivot in the new normal,” said Cooper.

A June episode of #TakeTimeThursday explored the Japanese art of shirin-yoku, or forest bathing, and filmed the show amongst the trees. It was because of this program that international audiences to start tuning in. (Photo by Heidi Fin on Unsplash)
A June episode of #TakeTimeThursday explored the Japanese art of shirin-yoku, or forest bathing, and filmed the show amongst the trees. It was because of this program that international audiences to start tuning in. (Photo by Heidi Fin on Unsplash)

I’ve just completed my first month as the new Associate Director of Education and I can’t be more excited to build on what the museum has started. The ways that we can get creative during a pandemic are going to go even further. Here are a few plans I’d like to share:

• We are reimagining a Smithsonian exhibit called “Men of Change” by taking it outside the walls of the museum into landscape of the community. This inspiring show features 27 African American men who have made positive change in the world. Right now is the perfect time for images of bold, beautiful, and powerful Black men to be displayed loud and proud. (Details coming soon. Tentative opening Feb. 1, 2021)
• #TakeTimeThursdays will continue to uplift online audiences every Thursday from now until summer 2021.
• Starting after the new year, a digital projector system will project larger-than-life images onto the museum’s exterior brick walls, providing a stunning new way to enjoy the art of social justice.

For now, we won’t see you at the museum, but we invite you to visit us at anacostia.si.edu and to check out the events tab. We’ll see you on the screen or in the streets – but we will never quit being there for you.

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