The Smithsonian’s Anacostia Museum and the Next 50 Years
Established in 1967 in historic Anacostia, the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum has begun its transition from a community institution focused on documenting and interpreting African-American history, art, and culture to its new mission of “ethnic themes” that encompass “broader social and cultural issues that urban communities share,” according to the museum’s public affairs office. The 2012 exhibition “Reclaiming the Edge: Urban Waterways and Civic Engagement” marked the beginning of the transition to its new mission.
In 2017 the museum presents “Gateways/Portales,” a series of dovetailing exhibitions exploring the demography, sociology, and culture of Latinx communities in the United States. Complete with bilingual literature, labelling, and information, the exhibitions represent a pivotal moment in the museum’s history, according to Acting Director Lori Yarrish. “As we seek to represent diverse facets of urban life, I welcome ‘Gateways’ and the timely subjects it presents,” she has stated. “The powerful themes the exhibition addresses resonate with urban communities across the nation and exemplify our pioneering approach to museum work, which we celebrate as we move into our 50th anniversary.”
“Gateways/Portales” introduces audiences to “Latinx,” a term derived from “Latino” where the “x” replaces the “o” to neutralize any reference to gender. The term goes one step further, defining people of Latin American origin living in the United States who may be of African, European, or Native American descent or some combination of the three. As the US Census Bureau grapples with its definition of Latino, Hispanic, or Spanish-speaking population-classifications, Latinx offers a comprehensive gender and race-neutral term.
‘Gateways/Portales’ – Entryways
“Gateways/Portales” curator Ariana Curtis of the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum described a gateway as “any opening or passage that can be opened or closed.” The exhibition explores both physical places, specifically cities, and a series of metaphorical concepts.
Focusing on Latinx immigration in the Mid-Atlantic and North Carolina, the exhibition draws comparisons to the experiences of new immigrant populations in the Baltimore, Washington, Raleigh-Durham, and Charlotte metropolitan areas. It also differentiates between the DC area’s steady growth of Latinxs since World War II, the slower growth rate in Baltimore since 1990, and the “hypergrowth” in Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, where Latinx populations rose by 1180 percent and 932 percent respectively between 1980 and 2010.
Historically, the introduction of new immigrant populations has led to tensions and transformations in the urban fabric. “Gateways/Portales” examines metaphorical gateways by following three perspectives: social justice and civil rights, Latinx media, and festivals as community empowerment. Each has its own space in the museum, entered through large gateways or portals.
Historic artifacts illustrating the struggles and triumphs of Latinx immigrant communities include the first editions of Spanish-language papers in Washington, DC, and personal effects of immigrants, like boots from a migrant worker who walked to the United States from Central America. To complement the artifacts, photographs illustrate daily scenes of Latinx life, such as Saturday morning in a Dominican salon in Baltimore, juxtaposed with historic images of, for example, the District’s Mount Pleasant riots in 1991.
Of particular note, the show combines images and artifacts with artworks, mostly paintings, and a large, site-specific mural at the entrance. The “Gateways/Portales” mural by Charlotte-based Latinx artist, muralist, and arts educator Rosalia Torres-Weiner visually synthesizes many of the exhibition themes and narratives, from immigration reform to celebrating Latin American culture in the United States.
Belizean Derek Thomas: A Garden and a Dream
In the museum’s art gallery “The Backyard of Derek Webster’s Imagination” presents works by self-taught Latinx artist Derek Webster (1934-2009). The works come from the museum’s Regenia A. Perry Folk Art Collection. Curated by Nada Alaradi, the exhibit provides posthumous biographical information with an emphasis on Webster’s life as an artist, while highlighting works from various periods in his artistic career.
Born in Honduras and raised in British Honduras (now Belize), the Afro-Latino artist spent his 20s and 30s working on merchant ships, then moved to Chicago to live with his sister in 1964. After years of working as a janitor for the Michael Reese Hospital, Webster saved enough money to purchase a home.
An avid gardener, Webster sought to keep his dog from unearthing newly planted vegetables and herbs. Webster described how, in a dream, he found a solution to protecting his plants: he would build a fence. He created his work from found objects, like driftwood collected along the shore of Lake Michigan and cans of discarded house paint. After completing his first work – while protecting his garden –Webster began creating a series of large sculptures that he placed around his property, eventually surrounding it. His sculpture garden drew the support and affection of his neighbors, and then much more.
A Chicago gallerist happened to take a wrong turn and wound up driving by Webster’s residence. Amazed by what he saw, Paul Waggoner offered the artist a solo exhibition at the Phyllis Kind Gallery in 1982. The success of Webster’s show propelled him into the national spotlight when in 1989-90 the Dallas Museum of Art exhibited his work in “Black Art, Ancestral Legacy: The African Impulse in African-American Art.”
Panamanian Influence in Washington
The museum’s public-program room features “Bridging the Americas: Community and Belonging from Panama to Washington, DC.” Like the Thomas retrospective, it focuses on a single topic, a historical timeline of Panama, beginning with the establishment of the US Canal Zone through the 100th anniversary of the of the Panama Canal in 2014.
The exhibition explores the personal stories of Panamanians and “Zonians” – residents of the US-controlled Canal Zone – through chronologically organized panels. The panels describe life experiences in both the native land and the new home in Washington, DC. Personal narratives come to life in the exhibition through graphically stylized quotes, historical images, and timelines. Content for the exhibition came from community members interviewed for the project, the museum’s archives, and a Smithsonian affiliate, the Museo de Canal Interoceanico de Panama.
Accessing the Museum
The Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum is located at 1901 Fort Place SE, Washington, DC 20020. It is open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Reach the museum by phone at 202-633-4820, or visit www.anacostia.si.edu. Admission and parking are free. The museum also hosts curator talks, workshops, and other public programs.