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D.C.’s own museum

(Published April 9, 2001)


Staff Writer

When visitors think of Washington, they invariably think most of the museums, galleries and monuments on and around the National Mall – not the historic neighborhoods of anyone’s hometown.

But that may be about to change.

In 2003, the District will open the doors to its very own museum – the City Museum, which will be located in a revitalized downtown area, across from the site of the new Convention Center. The museum will be housed in the former, soon-to-be-restored Central Public Library, known familiarly as the Carnegie Library, at Mount Vernon Square.

The City Museum, a project of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., will be aimed at telling the city’s history and is also an effort to draw people away from the national monuments and into the core of the city’s history – its neighborhoods.

"The most important city in the world does not have a museum that tells its own history (and that) is clearly a lack," said Barbara Franco, executive director of the Historical Society, a nonprofit organization that will operate the new museum.

"More than 20 million people come here each year and leave knowing nothing about the city. We have plenty of museums, but they all talk about someplace else," she said.

In an effort to attract visitors to the city’s historic neighborhoods, the new museum will be working with neighborhood museums. The City Museum will feature information about a particular neighborhood and then direct people to the neighborhood museum to learn more.

"The idea of ‘museums’ is changing," said Olivia Cadaval, a folklife specialist at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Smithsonian Institution.

"Everything does not have to be in one building," she said.

Two "gateway" museums the City Museum will work with initially are the Latin American Youth Center and the Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage.

The Latin American Youth Center features an oral history museum – the Latino Community Heritage Center, which was established in 1997 through a joint collaboration between the Smithsonian Institution and the Historical Society.

"The City Museum will feature a sound bite or history bite, if you will, of the Latino community," Cadaval said. She said she hopes this will encourage people to visit the Latino Community Heritage Center, a small museum that she said "tells the history of the Latino community from the perspective of the people that live there."

"People are invited to come into an exhibit space where people represent themselves, instead of someone else representing them," she said.

The Shaw Heritage Museum, operated by the Shaw Heritage Trust at the Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage, emphasizes the history and current culture of the U Street-Shaw neighborhood. Tours of the building and neighborhood, interactive exhibits using an audio kiosk and photographs, and a timeline that tells the history of the community, the building and African-Americans from the year 1700 to 2010 are just some of the exhibits planned for the Shaw Heritage Museum, according to Lori Dudson, its director.

Franco said "gateways" are also planned for neighborhoods such as Chinatown, Dupont Circle, Adams Morgan, Georgetown and Anacostia.

One organization that is already helping to market the City Museum and its approach to direct visitors to off-the-Mall attractions is the Heritage Tourism Coalition, an umbrella organization that brings together several local historic sites.

"We are helping the Historical Society showcase the whole city," said Kathy Smith, the tourism coalition’s executive director. "The (city) museum will be seen as a gateway to the city," she said.

The tourism coalition, which was co-founded by the Historical Society and the Humanities Council of Washington, D.C., has created various neighborhood tours, including ones that focus on Shaw, Anacostia and Georgia Avenue which are operated by the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.

Unlike most traditional tours of the city – which visit monuments, memorials and museums – these tours highlight neighborhoods where residents have lived, worked and made history. Tour participants are introduced to food and entertainment provided by local businesses in the neighborhoods where the tours take place, Smith said.

Smith said she thinks the City Museum will be a place for visitors to get acclimated to the District as residents see it. Then if visitors want to explore on their own, they can do so and discover things such as the house museums, the more than 650 designated historic sites, and the 39 historic districts, where only a handful of tours are offered, Smith said.

Currently, exhibits for the City Museum are still in the planning stages. Final design plans are expected by this winter.

Susan Schreiber, director of interpretation and public programs at the Historical Society, said some of the exhibits currently imagined for the City Museum are a theater or multi-media presentation that will probably last 15 minutes. It will take visitors through the District’s history at different time periods. For example, the time period where Indians lived in the District.

"It’s a dramatic presentation with humor and wit but educational and fun," Schreiber said.

Another exhibit planned is called the "overview exhibit," which is two-fold, she said. The first part of the exhibit will feature an extremely large map of the District on the floor. Visitors will be able to pinpoint historic landmarks near where they live and see how all the neighborhoods of the city come together. There will also be facades of buildings in the District in different time periods, according to Schreiber.

The second part of the exhibit will be devoted to people and life from their perspective. According to Schreiber, there will be eight people who once lived in the District featured at any one time. She also said costumed interpreters are being planned.

"Community Galleries" is another exhibit that will be featured. As an area set aside for community organizations, this is where neighborhood-specific exhibits will be featured at the museum’s opening.

Schreiber said there are many projects going on in the city through which people are documenting oral histories and taking photographs. One such project is sponsored by American University where students work on documenting the oral history of the Adams Morgan neighborhood.

When the museum opens there will also be a special exhibit on sports and the role of sports in District, she said.

The City Museum’s creators also plan to focus on children and their perspectives of the city.

"Kids are one of the most important audiences for the city museum," Schreiber said. "The idea of the city museum is to create a place for kids to participate."

On the ground floor of the new museum there will be a workshop with four classrooms for students. Schreiber said there will be interactive timelines that connect local neighborhood stories with national and international events. An archeology exhibit and laboratory will provide a hands-on educational opportunity to experience an archeological dig and learn firsthand about the work of archeologists.

In addition, there will be plenty of opportunities for internships, she said.

Franco said the plans for the exhibits started with "focus groups" that were randomly selected throughout D.C. neighborhoods. From the focus groups the Historical Society learned what community members want to see in the new museum. The second phase was the "planning session," where the concepts of the exhibits were developed, based on the responses from the focus groups. The third phase was an "advisory council," which Franco calls the "sounding board" that’s currently testing the exhibit ideas. Franco said the advisory council is comprised of approximately 35 members, involved with education, recreation and tourism.

Last month, the Historical Society took its concept of a City Museum and exhibit ideas to a meeting of the local Adviusory Neighborhood Commission 2C and was favorably received, according to ANC 2C01 Commissioner Alexander M. Padro. He said the Historical Society also came away from the meeting with a greater sense of the need for more portrayal of African-American history than was originally planned.

"We live in a city that is predominantly African-American," Padro noted. "It would be criminal not to portray the city’s history the way it is."

Roland Roebuck, Hispanic program manager for the D.C. Department of Human Services and also a member of the advisory council, expressed similar views to the Historical Society about its inclusion of ethnic and cultural history in the museum.

"D.C. is saturated with Museums, but the City Museum provides an opportunity to focus on local history," he said. "That local history should emphasize the presence of African-Americans in the development of D.C. No museum with the exception of the Anacostia Museum provides that insight."

Roebuck also stressed the need for the new museum to shed light on the "presence and contribution of migrants to the District – Caribbean, Central and South American, African, etc."

The idea of a City Museum has been around for a long time, but it’s only now becoming a reality. Franco said a previous City Museum was opened in a school, but due to funding difficulties the museum was not a success.

The old Central Public Library was selected as the site for the City Museum because of its own history as a welcoming gathering place for all, Franco said.

"It has a lot of symbolism," she said.

She noted that Carnegie was the first public library in the city and it was never segregated. "Both blacks and whites have fond memories of there," she said.

The Carnegie Library, constructed in 1902, is a three-story symmetrical structure with a center hall, two wings and three mezzanine levels. The public spaces will be on the three main levels with the mezzanines used for administrative offices, library and collections storage.

Franco said the Historical Society will re-open the K Street entrance of the building, allowing visitors to enter from both the north and south sides. The conceptual design projects that the ground floor will be used for an education center, archeology exhibit, collection storage. The first floor will have the Great Hall, four exhibition galleries, museum shops and a café. The second floor will have two galleries, a library reading room, collections, offices and storage.

The museum is being designed by a joint venture of two architectural firms: Washington-based Devrouax & Purnell and RKK&G Museum and Cultural Facilities Consultants of New York.

Devrouax & Purnell’s local projects include the Fireman’s Insurance Building at Logan Circle, the Studio Theatre and the corporate headquarters for Freddie Mac. RKK&G’s notable projects include the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American, Sackler and Rockefeller Wings and the restoration of Bryant Park and seven Carnegie Libraries in New York.

A Canadian firm, GSM Design of Montreal, will design the museum’s exhibits. Other firms working with the City Museum project include Transwestern Commercial Services as development manager and Lee and Lui Associates as landscape architects.

The Historical Society, founded in 1894 as the Columbia Historical Society, is currently located in the Heurich House Museum at Dupont Circle. It will operate out of the new City Museum when it opens. The Historical Society offers a variety of public programs for children and adults, publications, museum exhibits, an extensive library and comprehensive collections. However, to continue providing those services, Franco said the current staff will need to triple in order to run the new museum.

As for the Heurich House, it will continue to be operated by the Historical Society or another appropriate organization as the historic home built by German-American immigrant J. Christian Heurich, a successful brewer in Washington, she said.

Franco said $27 million is being raised to open the museum. She said the renovation is expected to cost about $22 million, and the Historical Society wants to start with a $5 million endowment.

To date, approximately $11.5 million has been raised. This includes $2 million in federal funding received for the museum. The D.C. government, which owns the old library, has provided the Historical Society with a 99-year lease at a rental rate of $1 per year.

Another $2 million was given to the Historical Society by the Washington Convention Center Authority. In addition, the convention center authority plans to market the City Museum to potential convention hosts as the off-site venue of choice for special events.

Franco said the Historical Society will seek bond financing for the remaining $10 million needed to make its longtime dream of a City Museum become a reality. She also hopes that once the museum is built, it will become self-sufficient through memberships to the Historical Society; income from the gift shop and café, after-hour events and rentals, the multi-media shows; and by fundraising.

Copyright 2001, The Common Denominator