When John Kinard was appointed director of the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum 15 years ago, he questioned the role the museum, part of the august Smithsonian Institution, would have in an area where people seemed to need jobs and housing more than history and culture.
"I didn't see how a museum could help the problems in this community," said Kinard, a minister and sociologist who grew up in Anacostia and still lives there.
But since its inception, the museum at 2404 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE has addressed the problems, interests and pasts of Anacostia residents with exhibits on drugs, unemployment and public education, and has broadened its focus with presentations on historical and contemporary black figures whose significance goes beyond the area, and indeed, the city.
As it celebrates its 15th anniversary this month, the Anacostia museum is trying to balance its role as a neighborhood cultural center with its efforts to bring nationally significant exhibitions of black history and culture to the city.
It also addresses concerns of some who see the history of black Americans being left almost entirely to the neighborhood museum rather than included in permanent displays of U.S. history and culture in the federal Smithsonian complex downtown.
"They've shunted the responsibility [for presenting black history] off to Anacostia," said Michael Winston, one of several critics of what is perceived as the Smithsonian's segregation of culture.
Winston, director of Howard University's Mooreland-Spingarn Research Center, which also studies black history and culture, said he supports the neighborhood museum concept but does not accept it as an alternative to regular or permanent exhibitions representing black Americans included, for example, in the National Museum of American History on the Mall.
Smithsonian Undersecretary Phillip Hughes said the institution is trying to bring more exhibits involving black subjects to its downtown museums. He pointed out that the Museum of American Art has just opened a show featuring the paintings of William Johnson, who is black. In October, the National Air and Space Museum will open an exhibit on black aviators, he said.
Kinard said shows on black Americans have been slighted at the downtown museums. He said black exhibitions downtown would not compete with the displays at the Anacostia museum but would complement them. "There's room for all of us," he said.
At Anacostia, Kinard employs his own belief that blacks should be shown in context with the rest of American history. Exhibition subjects and the persons, regardless of color, and events of their time are included in displays, he said.
"It does us no good to show ourselves in isolation the way whites have shown themselves in isolation from us," Kinard said.
The Anacostia museum was established to serve those who could not get to museums downtown or who might not otherwise see major exhibitions. "We thought the museum would be a bridge to the great storehouse of information downtown," Kinard said.
Since 1967, the museum, housed in a renovated movie house that bears the museum's name on what use to be a marquee, has attracted thousands of visitors from Anacostia, other neighborhoods, students from city schools and tourists.
The museum now includes a research building at the nearby historic park site of Fort Stanton, where the exhibits are designed and produced. The Smithsonian eventually plans to move the museum, which now has only one exhibit hall, into a new facility to be built near the proposed Metrorail Green Line station near the 1900 block of Anacostia Drive in Anacostia Park.
Over the years, some of the museum's most impressive exhibits have studied the lives of such figures as Frederick Douglass and such subjects as blacks in the American West.
However, many popular exhibits have been those that reached into the community and withdrew aspects of life often accepted or taken for granted but seldom explained.
Of those exhibits, "Rats: Man's Invited Affliction" ranks highest among residents and museum staffers. The exhibit included 10 of the urban rodents housed in the museum among illustrations, charts and exhibits on such things as habits, diet, reproduction and vermin control.
Kinard said that exhibit best typifies how the museum has tried to consider the interests of its immediate community. "We can't sit here and do little art shows like nothing else is going on out there," he said.
But the museum does present art. In November, the current exhibit on educator Annie J. Cooper will be replaced with a show of watercolors and other paintings by John N. Robinson, 70, of Anacostia, who paints as a pastime rather than a profession.
In April, the museum will show bronze sculptures by contemporary artist Ed Dwight of Denver, whose figures and scenes illustrate black cowboys of the American West.
Research director Louise Hutchinson is already starting the work on a 1984 exhibit on the Harlem Rennaisance. Education director Zora Martin-Felton said a 1986 exhibit titled "Anacostia As It Was: Black Life in the Late 1800s" will recreate actual facets of the community, including a one-room schoolhouse, garden and smokehouse.