- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture — unlike most museums — focuses on the history of people and communities not necessarily well-known but yet significant.

Take, for example, the current exhibit “Reclaiming Midwives: Pillars of Community Support.” Ever heard of Mary Francis Hill Coley? Probably not. Yet the early-20th-century Albany, Ga., midwife was important for thousands of women and their babies and even was featured in a midwifery training film that was used in as faraway a place as India.

“People relate to exhibits like this because they relate to community and family,” says Robert Hall, associate director for education at the Smithsonian museum. “When we get school groups, we encourage them to continue their discovery at home by talking to their parents and grandparents. Maybe they can tell you about folk medicine and cloth diapers? History is right there in your own home.”

The midwifery exhibit, the largest of three at the 28,000-square-foot, tucked-away-in-a-residential-neighborhood museum, examines the history of black midwives by showcasing individuals, such as Mary Francis Hill Coley, through text and photos as well as the tools used by practitioners, including forceps and scissors.

“We also talk about the herbs they used,” Mr. Hall says. “Some, like black haw, helped ease labor pains; others were used to treat digestive problems.”

Ginger root was used to induce labor and chamomile to soothe nerves.

The exhibit also features a modest wood-frame house, which is used to showcase additional must-have items for midwives, such as old newspapers, which were used to protect the bed linens; a Bible; and an almanac.

“They needed ways to pass time,” Mr. Hall says.

At the end of the exhibit, visitors get an overview of the past few decades of midwifery, which became regulated in the 20th century. In early midwifery, which started in the black community in the 1600s, midwives learned through informal apprenticeships — by watching and listening to an experienced practitioner — and could practice without oversight and interference. Starting in the 1920s, they had to register with local health departments, their midwife bags were inspected, and they needed an approval slip from a doctor to attend to a birth.

“I think this was really educational,” says Tanisha Otto, 17, who visited the museum on a recent morning. She was part of a college preparatory group from Newark, N.J. “I had no idea midwives did that much and were so important in the community. They were leaders.”

According to exhibit material, they often were referred to as “doctor” or “doctoress.”

Also showcased is an exhibit titled “New Orleans Black Mardi Gras Indians: Exploring a Community Tradition from an Insider’s View.” It features dozens of photos of black Indian tribe members donning colorful Mardi Gras costumes that feature giant plumage and elaborate beadwork. The exhibit also includes costumes.

“The headdress alone can weigh about 100 pounds,” Mr. Hall says.

As the masked — a term used to describe someone wearing an elaborate costume — walk through areas of downtown New Orleans, they’re accompanied by chanting and drumming.

“At some point there is a standoff to decide who is the prettiest,” Mr. Hall says. As many as 45 tribes participate in the masking and eventual standoff, he says. Despite Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, the tribes upheld the tradition this year.

Though adults dominate this event, costume-wearing children also are part of the tradition — and the exhibit.

“We try to include children in shows whenever possible,” Mr. Hall says. “It’s important that they see themselves represented so they feel connected, part of the context.”

The third exhibit contains work not necessarily about children, but by children. It’s the photo exhibit “Through Their Eyes: Birney Elementary School Students Photograph Anacostia,” which showcases the work of 13 young photographers. The photos, which are accompanied by short essays, depict everything from family life to local architecture.

The midwife exhibit will come down in early August, to be replaced in early September by “Banding Together,” an exhibit about marching bands. The Anacostia photo exhibit runs until the last week of August, and the Mardi Gras exhibit ends in mid-October.

“Our visitors are mostly local, mostly African-American,” Mr. Hall says, “but we have something for everyone because history is history, and what affects one, affects all.”

LOCATION: The Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture is at 1901 Fort Place SE, Washington.

DIRECTIONS: FROM INTERSTATE 295 SOUTH, TAKE THE MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. AVENUE EXIT. AT THE RAMP, STAY STRAIGHT TO GO ONTO MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. AVENUE. TURN LEFT ONTO MORRIS ROAD. AFTER ALMOST A MILE, MORRIS ROAD BECOMES ERIE ROAD. STAY ON ERIE ROAD, WHICH QUICKLY TURNS INTO FORT PLACE. STAY ON FORT PLACE UNTIL REACHING THE MUSEUM, WHICH WILL BE ON THE RIGHT.

METRO: The Anacostia stop on the Green Line is about 1 miles from the museum. For information on bus transfers, call Metro at 202/637-7000.

INFORMATION: 202/633-4820 or www.anacostia.si.edu.

HOURS:

10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; closed Dec. 25.

PARKING: Free.

ADMISSION:

Free.

NOTES: The building does not have a cafeteria. The immediate area around the museum is residential and does not have any restaurants. Visitors are welcome to bring a picnic and enjoy the 15 acres of green space surrounding the museum.


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