After months of construction and shuttered doors, the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum in Southeast will reopen to the public on Oct. 13.
Some have compared the Museum to a “diamond in the rough” – a fitting description for one of the many arms of the Smithsonian whose acquisitions deserve far more attention and support than it’s seen in years past.
But we have a feeling that’s all about to change with the hiring of Dr. Melanie Adams who recently accepted the position as director, moving from the Minnesota Historical Society where she previously served as deputy director for learning initiatives.
Adams brings over 25 years of community engagement experience in museums and higher education and a clear dedication to bringing stakeholders together to address relevant community issues. While in her stead at the Minnesota Historical Society, she managed 26 historic sites and museums throughout the State, creating a community outreach department which provided partnerships and programs outside the walls of the museum.
Her past work has focused on racial inequality in areas such as education. Appointed by the mayor in 2007 to the Special Administrative Board of St. Louis Public Schools, she worked for nine years with students, staff and the public to help the district regain accreditation.
Along the way, she received numerous accolades for her community work; she was named a St. Louis NAACP 100 Community Leader in 2009 and the Royal Vagabonds Foundation Extraordinary St. Louis Trailblazer in 2014.
“I am excited and honored to join the staff of the Anacostia Community Museum and build upon the great legacy of socially relevant programs, exhibitions and collections that explore the D.C. community and serve as a national model for the museum field,” Adams said.
Additionally, she holds a bachelor’s degree in English/African-American studies from the University of Virginia, a master’s degree in education from the University of Vermont and a doctorate from the University of Missouri St. Louis in educational leadership and policy studies.
She succeeds Lori Yarrish, who was the director of the museum from December 2017 until her death in August 2018. Lisa Sasaki, director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, has served as interim director since then.
That said, and given her impressive resume and successful experiences in the field, she has all the makings of the perfect person to take over the ongoing mission of the Southeast community’s reservoir of knowledge and history.
“Melanie is a proven educator, administrator and leader,” said David Skorton, secretary of the Smithsonian. “Her stellar leadership at cultural institutions and national non-profits demonstrates that she has the experience and vision to guide the Anacostia Community Museum to a bright future by expanding its reach and impact.”
We spoke with Adams at The Washington Informer offices about her vision — one which will undoubtedly bring greater luster to our community’s “diamond.”
Washington Informer: You have a strong background in education and have focused on racial inequality. How has that interest informed your work?
Melanie Adams: I received my Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies with an emphasis on critical race theory. After living in St. Louis for 25 years, you cannot help but talk about race, especially after the Mike Brown situation happened. But before that my work and our president at the Minnesota Science Museum, a white male, was never afraid to address the tough topics. We were handling related issues in the 2000s — looking at the inequities that were in St. Louis. We recognized that someone had to start the difficult conversations about race. Failure to do so often is the reason why people begin to talk in code.
WI: We hear you live East of the River. How do you like your new neighborhood and neighbors?
Adams: I followed the footsteps of one of my predecessors, John Kinard, and my husband and I are really happy living in the Anacostia community. As a community-based museum, it’s important to me that I live in the community. I feel that if I’m talking about community issues I need to be part of that community. Coming from the Midwest, I’m not used to a commute to work. I’ve always lived within five miles of the job. And as we all know, five miles in D.C. can be more like 45 minutes in commute time. I am learning about Ward 8 and Congress Heights a little each day. And it’s a great experience so far.
WI: You have authored a book for children that is doing quite well. Tell us about it.
Adams: It’s a book about civil rights for fourth graders and is based on an exhibit we developed in St. Louis. We found that fourth graders, while the curriculum was set to provide them with instruction in civil rights history, failed to adequately give them lessons in local civil rights history, the story of Dred Scott perhaps being the exception. The book was a departure from the normal articles and publications that come out of the museum system which are traditionally aimed at an adult audience. I’m pleased that it’s doing so well.
WI: What do you like so far about living in the District?
Adams: I was born and raised in New Jersey outside of Newark, went to school at UVA and have been in the Midwest for about 28 years. In some ways, D.C. is different but in many others, it’s the same. There are urban issues we face from educational equity to gentrification and crime. But D.C. has so many amazing cultural options and opportunities from theater and music to the museums, including, of course, the Smithsonians. The culture here is overwhelming. I particularly enjoy seeing the pride that people have in their neighborhoods. It’s pretty amazing. For me and my husband, our toughest task has been finding the time to get to learn more about Southeast and the rest of the City. The Anacostia Community Museum has so much to offer. I just want people to come out and see the changes that we’ve made during the construction period. I want people to understand that this is their museum. And I want to help bridge the gap between those who live on the two sides of the river. We have much to share and to learn about one another.
The Museum celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017. With our exhibits and the changes we’ve made to the physical property, I’m excited about the opportunity to both reflect on our founding and to see where we go for the next 50 years. People have the idea that a museum is where you go to see things but not touch things. We are showing people here in Anacostia that their stories matter. But we want to tell more stories. And we want those in the community to use the museum to better their own neighborhoods.
This is a vibrant community and the museum should be an extension of that vibrancy. After all, a museum is so much more than just a place where artifacts sit behind glass cases or where things hang on the wall.
About the Museum
The Anacostia Neighborhood Museum (original name) was established in a converted Southeast Washington movie theater in 1967 to bring the Smithsonian off the National Mall and into a local, inner-city environment.
In 2006, the name was changed to the Anacostia Community Museum. Exhibitions, collections and public programs examine contemporary themes through the eyes of diverse community members. The museum’s collections consist of objects and archival materials that document urban communities and the lives of urban residents, from home life and everyday activities to the community-building efforts of artists, activists and others.
While closed for renovations until October 13, the museum has offered “Offsite and In the City,” an initiative that includes satellite locations of the exhibition “A Right to the City” at branches of the D.C. Public Library and complementary public programs at venues throughout the District.