The Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum Reopens with a New Director

Museum Director Melanie A. Adams. Photo: Michaele Barnes, Smithsonian

After seven months of construction, the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum reopened to the public on Sunday, Oct. 13. The 50-year-old institution boasts improvements inside and out. Its new director, Melanie A. Adams, has spent a quarter-century managing community-based programs. Her arrival coincides with the museum’s new mission, now aimed at preserving “communities’ memories, struggles, and successes, [offering] a platform where diverse voices and cultures can be heard.”   

Adams brings years of community-centered approaches to education and the museum experience. Her career includes working as a mayoral appointee in St. Louis, Missouri, focusing on racial inequality in education. From 2005 to 2016, Adams led the Missouri Historical Society, overseeing 700 community programs with over 100 community partners. More recently, in 2016, she served as deputy director for learning initiatives at the Minnesota Historical Society. There she developed initiatives designed to reach neighborhoods outside museum walls.

Adams’ experience in building community-based programming dovetails with the museum’s historic mission as a neighborhood-centered learning institution. In addition, the museum’s new mission focuses on urban issues. Recent partnerships with other institutions, including DC Public Library, fit well with Adams’ previous experiences in the Midwest.

“A Right to the City: Adams Morgan,” a tabletop display for the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum’s satellite exhibit on view at the Mt. Pleasant Public Library. Photo: Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum

Adams explains that she feels “particularly fortunate to have joined the museum at this time with our refreshed look and expanded mission to illuminate and amplify the community’s collective power.” She looks forward to getting to know the visitors “both as director of the museum and perhaps even as a next-door neighbor, since I now live in the area.”

The $4.5 million renovation yielded a number of new features, including native plant landscaping developed in conjunction with Smithsonian Gardens. In addition to providing a lush outdoor space, the plantings double as an outdoor exhibition complete with panels describing the history of the Anacostia watershed from its first inhabitants, the Nachotchtank, to present-day restoration efforts. The outdoor space also includes a demonstration vegetable garden, part of the museum’s new gardening initiative.

Visitors driving to the museum will find other ameliorations such as a resurfaced parking lot. A walk inside reveals changes made to enhance visitor comfort such as improved seating, while two
new murals by DC-based artists Jay Coleman and Adrienne Gaither adorn the walls. Also of note, the museum now includes a refreshment counter and an internet lobby.

“We are thrilled to show off the changes we’ve made to make the facility more engaging to the community while supporting both our curatorial research and educational work in environmental stewardship,” Adams says.

In anticipation of the construction, the museum partnered with DC Public Library to curate specialized exhibitions, “A Right to the City,” that focus on gentrification and resident activism in six DC neighborhoods. Of the six, four were selected for offshoot exhibitions at DC Public Library. Entitled “Offsite and in the City,” and housed in the neighborhood libraries of Adams Morgan, Anacostia, Brookland, and Shaw, the exhibitions remain on view at each library through April 20, 2020.

At the reopened museum, a full version of “A Right to the City” is on view and features textual and visual enhancements including an historical map. In the Program Room Gallery, “Capturing the Anacostia” showcases photographs about the river and its use. In the Loggia Gallery, nine home-school students discuss their perspectives on gentrification in “GenZ Speaks: The Right to the City.”

The Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum is located at 1901 Fort Place SE. For more information visit online at or call 202-633-4820. The museum is open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. except
on Christmas.

Phil Hutinet is the publisher of East City Art, DC’s alternative art source. For more information visit