Founded in 1967, the Anacostia Community Museum in Fort Stanton is one of only a few Smithsonian museums located off the National Mall. (Photo by Graham Krewinghaus.)

Far from the holiday crowds, this Smithsonian museum doesn’t mind the quiet

The Anacostia Community Museum prides itself on putting community first — whether or not the tourists follow.

Across the river from the Memorial Day crowds that lined Washington, D.C.’s, National Mall, Fort Stanton in Anacostia was quiet Monday morning. A few neighbors cut their grass. A handful of children enjoyed their holiday in the neighborhood recreation center’s public pool. And in the Smithsonian Institution museum, the security guards mostly twiddled their thumbs.

The Anacostia Community Museum, the only Smithsonian museum in the Southeast quadrant, is unlike its 19 peer institutions in many ways. It’s the only museum in D.C. to focus on preserving and celebrating local history and culture. It also happens to be remarkably isolated from the commotion of downtown, with the nearest Metro stop a 30-minute walk away.

As a result, even on one of the busiest days for tourism, the museum sees almost no traffic. Only two visitors stopped in between 11 a.m. and noon on Monday, a couple from New Jersey who said they’d already seen a number of the museums on the mall and were looking for something off the beaten path. The four guards on shift were the only other people present in the building; one said of the slow day, laughing: “I’ve been here an hour and a half, feels like four.”

The Anacostia Community Museum has been the District’s least-visited Smithsonian for as long as the institution has tracked ; in 2023, it logged 15,500 visits, compared to the average Smithsonian facility’s 885,000 annual visits.

Part of the idea of the museum, though, is that the intended audience is different from what it might garner on the mall. The museum asks visitors to engage more deeply with its contents, to both learn about and contribute to the community. The current exhibit — Bold and Beautiful Vision: A Century of Black Arts Education in Washington, D.C. — includes interactive features throughout the gallery including several opportunities for visitors to create their own art.

The Anacostia Community Museum sits in far southeast D.C. (Photo by Graham Krewinghaus.)

The exhibit, which runs until March 2025, dives deep into the history of arts at local schools from Moten Elementary, just down the street, to Duke Ellington School of the Arts and Howard University. The art, made by teachers as well as students at those schools, ranges from illustrations published first in children’s books to a marionette made collaboratively in a high school class.

“What they wanted to do here is to show that D.C. had a lot of input when it came to art in America,” security guard Earl Holmes said. “It’s about the real lasting legacy of these art teachers.”

In addition to the main exhibit space, the museum frequently holds outdoor events for students as well as adults, bringing the community together over more than just the art on the walls.

“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,” museum director Melanie Adams in 2019 when she took the position.

The museum attracts a more local audience than the massive galleries on the mall: Holmes estimated around half of daily visitors were from the neighborhood. At the same time, though, he said there is room to grow in terms of that museum-community relationship.

“People in this area take it for granted, I think,” he said. “They don’t come as much as they should.”

Nonetheless, the tucked-away location and under-the-radar feeling is a part of this museum’s unique identity, Holmes, who grew up in Anacostia, said.

“It’s all really about the people from this area,” he said. “The forgotten leaders of Washington.”

Graham Krewinghaus

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