For years, one defining question hung over the 45-year-old Anacostia Community Museum: What do you do if a giant, $500 million museum with a mission nearly identical to yours decides to open a few miles away?
You don’t panic, says Camille Giraud Akeju, who faced that challenge when she became director of the Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture in 2005 — a couple of years after Congress approved the establishment of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, scheduled to open in 2015 on the Mall. Both museums are part of the Smithsonian Institution.
“My first day on the job, I was asked if I had decided on a new name,” Akeju says.
She was told that the Anacostia museum — which for decades had centered on African American history and Washington’s East of the River communities — would have to refocus. For a brief moment, “I felt like someone had just blindsided me,” Akeju says. “Then, I saw it as an opportunity.”
After nearly 18 months of research and meetings with staff members, community activists, artists, cultural and educational groups, the Anacostia Community Museum — renamed in 2007 — launched its new mission: a focus on issues that impact urban communities.
On Oct. 15, “Reclaiming the Edge: Urban Waterways and Civic Engagement” will mark the inaugural exhibit of the museum’s reinvention. It uses the Anacostia River and its impact on the community as a jumping-off point to examine the history, culture and conservation efforts around urban waterways in Pittsburgh, Louisville, Los Angeles, Beijing and London.
“We still wanted to pioneer and say, ‘What can we do that no other museum is focused on?’ ” said Portia P. James, head curator. “It’s very exciting. I love the questions we’re able to ask.”
opens Oct. 15 at the Anacostia Community Museum, 901 Fort Place SE. 202-633-4820. anacostia.si.edu .