- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 22, 2000

For most area residents from suburbanites to Georgetowners Anacostia might as well be on the other side of the moon.
Technically part of the District of Columbia, this Southeast neighborhood sits across from the rest of the city, separated from it by the Anacostia River and a whole lot of labels. It often gets a bum rap sometimes out of fear from people who don't spend much time there.
Anacostia, however, is abundant with active churches, charming row houses and spacious parks. The National Park Service runs the Frederick Douglass Home there. Cleopatra's favorite flower, the Egyptian lotus, blooms among 100,000 water plants at the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Anacostia Park.
Another reason to get to know this part of Washington is the Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture on Fort Place SE. Started as the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum in 1967, it has become a leader and model among black American museums throughout the country.
"Most of the time folks assume because it's in Southeast it's not a safe place to come, but it is," says Sheila Parker, the museum's outreach coordinator. "My co-workers and I walk during the summer; we have no problems.
"Folks are friendly here. I find that it's no different from museums on the Mall."
The difference now is that the Anacostia Museum is closed.
The insides of the 15-year-old building have been gutted as part of a $5.9 million restoration and millennium campaign, "A New Day Begun." (Two other museums, the National Portrait Gallery and the National Museum of American Art in Northwest, also have shut down temporarily for the same reason.)
"We need more permanent exhibit space," Ms. Parker says. Her office now is in the basement of the nearby Lucy Ellen Moten Elementary School. "We need additional program space, and it would be nice to have a library where kids come in and do research or hands-on activities."
When the project is finished in late spring 2001, the facade will be extended, a wheelchair ramp will circle the front, and two floors will be added in the rear of the building. Basically, visitor traffic flow will improve because the building will look and feel more like a museum.
"We're replacing all the building's systems," says Associate Director Sharon Reinckens. "We're creating more accessibility. We had some fire and safety problems … in reports from inspections that were done."
The museum's air-conditioning system and roof will be replaced. The additional nonpublic space will be reconfigured for collection handling and maintenance equipment.
The circular wheelchair ramp will lead up to the front entrance, which Ms. Reinckens says is being extended about 20 feet.
"We are enhancing the lobby space to keep kids out of the rain," Ms. Reinckens says. "The building previously had been so small that 30 kids would have been face to face in the lobby.
"If another busload would come behind them, those kids would have to sit in the rain."
Project superintendent Lee Trossbach says the weather hasn't hindered work much. While demolition goes on, workers in backhoes stack massive white pipes in front of the museum. Project manager Ron Yozwiak says the tubes make up a new drainage system; the previous setup allowed water to drain down the hill into the river.
The Anacostia Museum originally opened in the old Carver Theater on Fourth Place SE in 1967. The legacy of the late John Kinard, its first director, and Zora Marie Felton, assistant director, the Anacostia Museum began at the behest of Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley, who wanted a "neighborhood storefront" museum as opposed to a drafty building with long corridors and high ceilings.
It began amassing a collection that now consists of more than 7,000 works on paper, paintings, photographs, manuscripts and other objects including the fur coat Marian Anderson wore at her 1939 concert on the Lincoln Memorial steps.
Some of the best-known exhibits have included "The Rat: Mans Invited Affliction," about the Norway rat. It exemplified the museum's mission of educating the community about issues and culture that affect it.
To fulfill its mission of staying connected to its community, the museum has mounted exhibits dealing with unemployment, education, drugs and health issues. "We cant sit here and do little art shows like nothing else is going on out there," Mr. Kinard, who died in 1989, once said.)
Mrs. Felton also created a nature trail and started a mobile museum to carry exhibits to schools and other educational centers.
The museum moved to its current site in 1985. The monolithic, curved brick facade ("It looks like a fortress," Ms. Reinckens says) was added onto a corrugated metal building already in place.
Architects had only $1 million with which to work. In an era in which $816 million was spent for the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, Ms. Reinckens, nevertheless, is grateful to have $5.9 million to vastly improve the Anacostia Museum.
"That's a lot of money for an Anacostia project," she says.
The Anacostia Museum dropped its "neighborhood" moniker in 1995 and merged with the Center for African American History and Culture. The museum's staff, now led by Steven Newsome, is planning programs on black American families, the wider community, photography, food and even carnival traditions.
"We're connected through the Web," Ms. Reinckens says. "We're not that far. It's a mile-and-a-half to the subway, and three minutes by subway."

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