Credit: Michael Barnes

For the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum, 2019 has been a year full of change. The museum closed for large-scale renovations in March, and in May, it welcomed a new director, Melanie Adams, all the way from Minnesota. City Paper sat down with Adams ahead of the museum’s grand re-opening this Sunday, Oct. 13, to discuss its history and the role she envisions for it in a changing and gentrifying city.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

WCP: What was your journey to D.C.?

Melanie Adams: I spent about 12 years in St. Louis at the Missouri Historical Society, and then three years in Minnesota at the Minnesota Historical Society. And really a lot of my work has been around community engagement and community outreach in museums. The Anacostia Community Museum has always been the model in the museum world of how you work with communities and how museums can serve communities, and so when this position came open—it only comes open every so often—I applied… I think one of the things I learned working for larger historical societies is that I really wanted more of an opportunity to work closer to the community. And this museum really allows me to do that.

WCP: So this museum has always been a North Star to you. Can you elaborate on that?

MA: Well, it’s always been a national model. While my degree is not in museum studies, masters-level students will tell you that you read about John Kinard (who’s the founder of this museum) and the Anacostia Community Museum when you’re doing your graduate work. Many times, people think of museums as places for people of a certain socioeconomic level, of a certain race, that are telling stories that are not necessarily about everyone. And one of the really appealing things about this museum is that we tell the story of everyone, and everyone is able to make a difference in some way. So even if you look at our current exhibit A Right to the City, yes, you’ll see something about Martin Luther King in there. But you’ll also see things about everyday people making change in their community. That’s one of the ways this museum was put on the map: that it was telling the stories of everyday people making change in their community, and really sharing those stories. And before that, with museums, it was always about famous people. Or people that may have not looked like the community.

WCP: What was the museum’s founding vision?

MA: So the museum was founded in 1967 by the Smithsonian. And really what was happening at that time—you have to think of what was happening in the country in the 1960s: Martin Luther King had been assassinated. You’re obviously having issues around race. And this really was an opportunity for the Smithsonian to build a museum in the community. It was always in Anacostia (not always in this location). It was really focused on the African American community, not only in Anacostia but in the D.C. region. Over the last 52 years, we’ve transitioned away from one specific community to be more of a neighborhood community museum. Meaning we’re talking about the communities that make up the D.C. region. So that could be anything from the Latino community, to the immigrant community. When you look at A Right to the City, we talk about Chinatown. 

WCP: What do you find most exciting about the exhibition?

MA: [laughs] Ooh what do I find most exciting? Well, I think the really nice thing about it is that it is about six different neighborhoods around the D.C. region. It’s everything from Adams Morgan to Chinatown to Shaw to Anacostia to Southwest to Brookland. It talks about the different ways that people made change in those communities. So for example, with Adams Morgan, it looks at equity in education. When you’re looking at Chinatown, it’s more about displacement and what that community was like when it started as an immigrant community. And Chinese immigrants moving to and living in that community, and now the changes that have started taking place. So it looks at issues that you would expect—issues of gentrification, issues of education equity, issues of housing equity—but really the key that ties them all together is what I said at the beginning: how ordinary people are making change. One thing that the curator says is that we want to provoke people even with the title. So when you say A Right to the City, it’s really a question. Like who has a right to the city? And as the city continues to change, who continues to have that right? What’s also important to us is that those neighborhoods in D.C. are really just a microcosm for what’s happening around the country and the world. So you could take those same six stories, probably change the neighborhoods, and tell the same stories in Newark, New Jersey, in Chicago, Los Angeles, St. Louis. So it’s looking at all those issues on a hyperlocal level in D.C., but they really could be applied across urban areas around the world. 

WCP: Thinking about gentrification and how the city is changing, what is your vision for how you want the museum to evolve? Or, how you want its mission to stay the same while the city changes?

MA: It’s been a really successful model as a community-based museum; it always will be a community-based museum. But I really think what we’re hoping we’re doing is that as the community around us is changing, it’s really important for people not to forget. But also just sharing with people throughout the D.C. region the history of D.C. This museum has such a unique opportunity to be able to do that. Whether it’s through things like A Right to the City or our upcoming exhibit called, roughly, D.C. Eats—that’s the working title—about the food history in the D.C. area. I think this museum just has such a great opportunity because we do take the time to dive deep into specific subjects. So one of the things you’ll notice is that we have probably one exhibit a year, which may be different, other museums you’ll see a lot of changing exhibits coming through. But that really shows you the time and attention that’s spent in the community developing those stories. In A Right to the City, you’ll see the curator did over 200 oral histories with the community. Now all 200 aren’t in the exhibit, but that shows you the depth and breadth of the research we do when we’re doing our work. 

WCP: Your background is, as you said, mostly in community outreach. How are you planning to bring that to the museum? 

MA: One of the things I’m really hoping to do is create more community-based partnerships. I think we do have some of those happening now, but really how can we reach out to people who are doing very similar work around specific topics so we can all work together and kind of complement each other? I think at the end of the day, I don’t want to be territorial like this is our topic only. If someone’s doing really great work around this topic, then why wouldn’t we partner with them to then share that information with the community? So we really want to be seen as a community space, as a willing collaborator. 

WCP: Do you feel like other museums do enough of that?

MA: I think there are models all over the country of museums that are doing great community outreach. And I think it’s one of those things that more museums are now recognizing the importance of. Again, it goes back to our founding 52 years ago of what it’s like to be embedded in a community and telling those community stories. Because if you think about most of the museums that were founded, they were telling the stories of a certain class of people and a certain race of people, to be blunt. And they were also telling maybe the state-wide story or the country’s story. They weren’t necessarily always telling a community’s story. Now, I think a lot of museums are really realizing the importance of the community based stories and also the everyday heroes who made those stories happen. I mean you can only tell so many stories of great men in history who did things. There are great women, great children, great people of color, and all of these people have been absent in the narrative—whether it’s in art, whether it’s in history, whether it’s in science. And I think museums are just realizing now that these are the stories that people are really hungry for.