Long before the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened its doors on the Mall in September, there was a relatively small Smithsonian site harboring big ideas and nestled in Anacostia.
The museum opened in 1967 as “an outreach effort by the Smithsonian to the local African American community,” according to the museum website. Today, the Anacostia Community Museum aims to focus on broad cultural themes.
It presents a wide range of events and exhibits, such as a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald or yard art by Honduran-born artist Derek Webster. The museum is in the Fort Stanton neighborhood (1901 Fort Pl. SE), about a mile from the home of escaped slave, abolitionist, writer and newspaperman Frederick Douglass.
“Communities see themselves in this museum,” says acting director Lori Yarrish, calling it part of “a conversation representing all peoples.” In 2016, the museum hosted 28,000 visitors, officials said. Many come from the neighborhood, but Yarrish emphasizes that the museum is for the entire Washington area.
On March 10 (11 a.m. to 1 p.m.) a film and discussion celebrate Celia Cruz, and on March 11 (2 to 4 p.m.) is the Fitzgerald program. You can register for free at anacostia.si.edu/Events, or by calling 202-633-4844.
The largest of the three current exhibitions, “Gateways/Portales” (through Aug. 6), looks at the experiences of Latino migrants and immigrants in Washington, Baltimore, Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, N.C.
The museum has to be creative to attract visitors, Yarrish says: “It has to be relevant [and] poignant.”
The museum’s 2,100-piece collection includes sculptures by artist Charles Smith and a custom piano owned by opera singer Madame Evanti. Marian Anderson’s fur coat is a favorite of Yarrish’s. The full collection is not on display.
Friends Shakisha Morgan of Lanham, Md., and Robin Carr of Northeast Washington often visit area museums, but they were making their first visit to this one. Carr learned of it on Instagram.
“I wish I knew about this museum before. I feel like this is a gem,” said Morgan, who appreciated that the space is “integrated into the community.”
Added Carr: “Museums can be distant and cold. ... This feels inclusive.”