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When covid-19 shut down this Smithsonian museum, one exhibit came outside

D.C. resident David Smith checks out the “Men of Change” display. The exhibit was set for the Anacostia Community Museum, but it was moved outdoors because of the pandemic.
D.C. resident David Smith checks out the “Men of Change” display. The exhibit was set for the Anacostia Community Museum, but it was moved outdoors because of the pandemic. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
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Because of the coronavirus pandemic, no one is going inside the Anacostia Community Museum. So why not take an exhibit that was supposed to be within that Smithsonian museum’s walls and move it without?

That’s what has happened with a new photo exhibit highlighting the lives, deeds and contributions of African American men from a variety of fields. The full name of the show was originally “Men of Change: Power. Triumph. Truth.” Now it’s “Men of Change: Taking it to the Streets.”

Take it to the streets they did.

“More people will be seeing it this way than if we were at the museum,” Melanie Adams, the director of the Anacostia Community Museum, told me last week as we stood at 48th and Nash streets NE. The exhibit’s large, multi-photo panels are positioned on sidewalks around the Deanwood Community Center and the nearby Ron Brown College Preparatory High School, the city’s only all-male public school.

There are other benefits to moving the exhibit outside than just the potential for a larger crowd that can visit 24/7, Adams said. Even the highest museum ceiling isn’t as high as the sky. The outdoor location allowed exhibit designers to increase the size of some images. And when was the last time you could bring your dog to a museum?

The dramatic — and weatherproof — photos are mounted on sturdy metal screens fastened to the ground. They include a pantheon of influential figures, old and new — James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Muhammad Ali, LeBron James, Duke Ellington, Kendrick Lamar — arranged in such categories as Catalysts, Myth-Breakers and Fathering.

The text, written by Isaac Perry, is muscular and inviting: “Have you seen them? They are bold. Powerful. Tragic. Beautiful. And true.

“They are icons often rendered invisible by a country, yet uplifted by a culture. They are men whose stories are the legends of the past, the inspiration for the now, and the beginning of the future.”

There are some nice connections. The section on Storytellers — among them Carter G. Woodson, Dick Gregory and Alvin Ailey — is next to the Deanwood Library. The section on Community is near the entrance to the community center.

“This exhibit is in dialogue with the city,” said Marquette Foley, content director at the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, creator of “Men of Change,” which traveled across the United States before arriving in Washington.

A dialogue means the city is talking back. The Deanwood Citizens Association has been active in spreading the word. And over the course of the exhibit, a display near the community center will highlight Deanwood residents, with photographs of the neighborhood’s own men of change.

They include David Smith, an entrepreneur with deep roots in the community. “I think there are three generations in the picture,” Smith said. They include his father, Anthony Smith, and his late grandfather, Lloyd D. Smith, president of the Marshall Heights Community Development Organization, who in 1991 showed Queen Elizabeth II around Ward 7.

“I come from a long legacy of amazingly great men,” Smith said. He added, “We’re all flawed,” but all have tried to speak to the culture of the city and the community.

“Men of Change,” Smith said, is a good way to confront the dire narrative Americans often hear about Black men, peeling back the layers to reveal a truer picture.

Milton B. Yates lives three blocks from the exhibit. He’s the wrestling coach at Gonzaga College High School and a personal trainer interested in addressing health disparities in underserved communities.

“I’m glad that there’s an exhibit being showcased here in Deanwood,” he said. “I call Deanwood one of the last neighborhoods, just because it’s like one of the last places in the city to be celebrated.”

He thinks it’s time for Deanwood to get some buzz.

I asked Patricia Stamper, secretary of the Deanwood Citizens Association, what she hopes the exhibit will accomplish.

“My desire is that people can see the positives in a Black man,” she said. “As a mother of two Black boys, I don’t want anybody to be afraid of my boys.”

The Smithsonian’s Foley said two messages she hopes visitors take from “Men of Change” are: “Here are examples you can follow” and “Don’t be stopped by anyone who wants to stop you.”

The exhibit runs through May 31. An audio tour — narrated by Ron Brown High students — will be available starting Friday. Events connected to “Men of Change” will include pop-up projections throughout Ward 8. For information, visit menofchange.si.edu.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.

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