When Camille Giraud Akeju was an undergraduate art student at Howard University in the early 1970s, she had an internship with an arts workshop for the Smithsonian Institution.
"We would load presses onto Smithsonian trucks and go to rural Maryland and Virginia to teach printmaking," Akeju explained. "The Smithsonian was my first taste of education through museum settings."
That sparked an interest in museums, which three decades later is bringing her back to the Smithsonian. The museum announced yesterday that Akeju, the president of the Harlem School of the Arts, would become the director of the Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture on Dec. 12.
Akeju, 55, lived in Washington when the Anacostia Museum was one of the models in the push for large museums to reach into inner-city neighborhoods. Founded in 1967, the Anacostia facility is one of the survivors of that initiative and has expanded to become a resource for local history and African American culture. Along the way it has had problems building an audience. Last year it drew only 22,000 visitors to its Southeast Washington building. The museum has had several shows a year, but the gallery space closes between shows. The museum has remained open for research and lectures and educational programs.
In a telephone interview yesterday, Akeju said she saw the appointment as a "homecoming" and wanted to work on reconnecting the museum to its neighbors.
"In the early days there was a lot of excitement about the museum and support from the community," she said. "As time went on, some of the local focus was lost. I would like to see that come back."
Akeju applauded the museum's programs, which examine religion, photography, popular culture, dance and fashion. "But they could be taken up a notch. There are several schools within walking distance, and I would like to see them in there every day. I don't want there to be any downtime," she said.
Akeju was born in the Bronx, N.Y., lived there for nine years and then moved to the suburbs of Mount Vernon, N.Y. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Howard.
One of her first jobs was at the New York Transit Museum, where she helped build the archives for subway cars, rail sections and tokens. She then worked with a youth services organization in Harlem and a community arts organization in the Bronx. In 1999 she became president of the Harlem School. During her tenure, the enrollment has grown by 5 percent each year.
"She is a community builder and knows how to build relationships with people and their organizations, such as churches and schools," said James Early, the director of Cultural Heritage Policy at the Smithsonian's Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and the interim chief at the Anacostia.