The Utopia Project
Artist Yetunde Sapp’s mural honoring Breonna Taylor, part of the Utopia Project at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum; Credit: Robert Bettmann

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The Utopia Project, on display through March 1 at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, is a brilliant example of what happens when a museum dismisses the top-down model for exhibition development. It lists no single curator, or director, and was created in a collaboration between the museum’s associate director of education, Andrea Jones, staff of the museum, and the New York-based Center for Artistic Activism, which helps develop and sustain artistic activism.

The exhibit, which is also described as an “interactive gallery experience,” presents a framework designed to empower arts activism. Up since November, the project fits in neatly with the museum’s longstanding mission to tell the stories of the everyday people who’ve used their voices to bring about change and equity. As the museum’s director, Melanie Adams, said in an emailed statement to City Paper, “programming like The Utopia Project continues the museum’s decades-long tradition and centers around each person’s potential for creative action in their communities.”

Some of the museum’s history is on display within The Utopia Project, including a panel showing Georgia Mills Jessup, the museum’s first artist in residence from 1968–1970, who painted murals on walls adjacent to the museum as part of the area’s People’s Park. Another panel features the story of local poet RhozierRoachBrown, who was part of a 1970 Anacostia Museum exhibition event that explored experiences of incarceration.

Asantewa Boakyewa, deputy director of the museum, supported collection of the two very large artworks in the display in her prior position as associate director of collections and exhibitions. In an interview with City Paper, Boakyewa described the exhibition’s unusual development trajectory, saying, “The traditional exhibit, particularly at the Smithsonian, is usually heavily guided by research. With exhibitions, generally, it is field-specific disciplines that the curator is using to identify the methodology for the research. [For The Utopia Project] gallery experience, we wanted to be clear to delineate that this is not an outgrowth of an academic or research question or inquiry, but that it’s an immersive experience.”

The serpentine path created by the partial and temporary exhibition walls is layered with artworks, interactives, and histories that teach the viewer about arts activism. Wall text asks attendees to pick up a “Dreambook” shortly after walking in, and the space includes stations with stickers, ink stamps, a virtual reality interactive, and tables with access to crayons and Legos.

A pair of larger colorful artworks the museum recently acquired are centered: a mural honoring Breonna Taylor by Yetunde Sapp, and a crocheted Black Lives Matter mural that originally hung in Lafayette Square during the summer of 2020 by London Kaye. These powerful street artworks—protesting the extrajudicial execution of Black Americans—are a complicated backdrop for the open-ended imagining of a “utopia,” due to the brutality that the Black Lives Matter movement seeks to put an end to. But by centering these works in The Utopia Project, the museum affirms the importance of the protest and the experiences of Black Americans.

Sir Thomas More (1477–1535) coined the word utopia to describe a place with a shared culture by combining Greek words meaning “no place” and “a good place.” The use of the word in the exhibition’s title references Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s effort to describe a world that does not yet exist. Instead, the exhibition’s design asks visitors to engage in play-driven imaginings of utopia while immersing themselves in history via examples from very adult campaigns.

Local artist Maps Glover at The Utopia Project; Credit: Robert Bettmann

The Utopia Project describes the activist process as something co-created among communities, and it embodies the co-creation process, including works made by museum staff members and local artists Dwayne Lawson-Brown and Maps Glover. A video of poet Lawson-Brown performing ends the exhibit; earlier visitors come across an interactive piece by visual artist Glover. This piece, using a QR code via smartphone camera apps, conjures an imaginary being, which seems to float in the gallery on one’s phone. Visitors can even capture a picture of themselves with it—just one example of technology allowing us to see a world as it does not currently exist. Glover’s is one of several technology-crafted artworks that ask visitors to interact with the exhibit—including a globe, which viewers are encouraged to physically leave a mark on with an ink stamp.

 “The collection’s objects that are in the show, as well as the historical examples that we call case studies in this experience are designed to support the interactivity,” says Boakyewa. “That is really what is most different about The Utopia Project.”

Some of the stories on display, like the recent Black Lives Matter protests that took over the city during the summer of 2020 following the murder of George Floyd, and the Don’t Mute DC protests, an ongoing response to gentrification in the city, are recent enough that viewers may already be familiar with them. But many are more arcane. For example, the show includes a panel on activist Julian Hobson, also known as a “hoaxmaster,” an east of the river resident who, in the 1960s, allegedly caught rats in his neighborhood and set them loose in Georgetown in an effort to get city officials to take action on pest infestation.

“Maybe we don’t think of museums being a place to empower residents, but it’s part of what the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum has always done,” says Nina Simon, a museum studies pedagogue and the author of The Participatory Museum, who is not connected to ACM. “This is in the DNA of the Anacostia Community Museum, to be a place that centers and pushes boundaries around activism, around localism, and around community voices having a place in the institutions.” 

This idea is shared by the Smithsonian. “Since its inception, the Anacostia Community Museum has been a model for how museums can be more than simply community centers but also powerful change agents at the center of their communities,” Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch said in a Nov. 7 press release announcing a $5 million gift from philanthropists Roger Ferguson and Annette Nazareth to establish an endowment supporting the museum’s director position.

While clearly designed to delight younger children and teens, The Utopia Project is equally interesting for adults. Readers of George Orwell may not entirely envision a new world walking through the space, but it is hard to avoid some sense of rapture at the creativity and creative history on display. 

Muralist Yetunde Sapp will discuss her work at the artist talk, “Art and Calls to Action,” at 1 p.m. on Feb. 9 at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum. Register online. The Utopia Project runs through March 1. Free.