A day at the museum doesn't have to be a formal viewing of priceless masterpieces, where muffled voices and three-foot distances are standard etiquette. At the Anacostia Museum's current exhibition, "Whose Art Is It Anyway?" visitors are asked to shed convention and become artists for a day.
That explains Traneesha Scott, 6, stacking wooden blocks into a neat tower. "It's a pet hospital," she said, carefully balancing the seventh story. "We're going to need a lot of room, because there's a lot of pets."
Nearby, her sister, Sharrie, 4, was into a similar experiment at the mask-making table. "This is a bat," she said, pointing to a crepe paper cutout scribbed with crayons.
The museum's expansive one-room gallery has been turned into a public art studio with a half-dozen tables where people of all ages can make masks, scribble graffiti, watch videos of street musicians and play with soft sculpture. For more literary visitors, there is a poetry corner, with index cards and pens to jot down inspirations.
"The arts are all around you," declares a video recording in the foyer. "You can see them, hear them, read them and wear them."
The exhibit is designed to encourage visitors to examine the role of art in their community. Its theme piece is a mock city with cutouts of sculpture and murals that people can adhere to the building blocks.
"The issue of public art is very important in this community," said Sharon Rankin, acting co-director of the museum. Agreements made for rezonings around the Anacostia Metro station, set to open in 1992, will free money for public arts projects, Rankin said. Museum staff members envision public input into the kind of art that goes into the neighborhood.
"It shouldn't be just artists, architects and city planners who decide what lands in the community," Rankin said. "This is our way of informing the neighborhood that they have a vote on how the money is spent."
The exhibit has broken Anacostia Museum attendance records, with more than 8,000 visitors since it opened July 15.
In arranging the ambitious show, Victor Augustine, a member of a team of seven curators, wanted to explain public art as more than corporations commissioning a sculpture to "plop it in a public square." He wanted to disply examples of art in public spaces that expresses life in a community, including such unpredictable arts as fashion statements and street-corner musicians.
With this in mind, museum photographer Harold Dorwin was dispatched on a tour of the District to unearth indigenous art. "I did it kamikaze style," said Dorwin, who dashed to Metro stations, mural sites and parks, shooting more than 2,500 photos in one week. "I ran around every street festival from Old Town to Adams-Morgan," Dorwin said.
His vivid, five-by-six-foot pictures line the gallery's upper wall: city murals, sculpture, a flute player and a woman with long hair braided with colorful ribbons.
"Jewelry is sometimes referred to as wearable art," reads a wall plaque underneath. "And high-fashion hairstyles can be sculptural."
A video plays a sampling of interviews with local street entertainers: drummers in Dupont Circle, a band in Langdon Park, stilt walkers and jugglers at neighborhood fairs. The poetry corner displays placards from the Street Fair Journal featuring poems by Henry Lee Dumas and others. This nonprofit arts project places poetry and photos on public buses and trains across the country.
There is a large soft sculpture by local artist Julee Dickerson Thompson: a two-paneled wall with faces and costumes of black, gold and magenta fabric that viewers can manipulate into their own design.
The museum also offers a performance series in collaboration with D.C. Artworks, where local artists, poets, musicians and dancers take to the gallery's stage every Tuesday and Thursday.
Not all public art is universally applauded, however, and one exhibit chronicles controversial projects such as artist David Hammons's 14-by-16-foot portrait of a white-faced Jesse L. Jackson with blond hair and blue eyes entitled "How Ya Like Me Now?"
The exhibit explains that the artist considered it a visual pun "but some perceived the work to be insulting to African Americans . . . and partially destroyed it."
A question underneath asks, "How might conflicts that have a negative effect on the community be avoided?"
These are questions guide Carol Cooper asked as she led a group of high school seniors several weeks ago to a wall-size mural by Ron Turner featuring giant portraits of astronaut Frederick Gregory, basketball star Michael Jordan and entertainer Bill Cosby. Looking at the trio of successful black men who broke new ground in their fields, Cooper explained, "This is about non-limiting thinking."
But in many ways the whole show is about non-limiting thinking, expanding the boundaries of traditional definitions of art to include everything from graffiti and storytelling to a youngster's vision of a busy pet hospital. If the curators succeed in shaking up people's conventional views of art, the tour should really begin when they walk out the museum door.
The show continues through Sept. 15 at the Anacostia Museum at 1901 Fort Place SE.