When Covid-19 hit the United States, the Smithsonian Institution’s traveling exhibition “Men of Change: Power. Triumph. Truth.” had just made it to the California African American Museum. The Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum was scheduled to host the exhibition in December 2020, but it never made it. Instead, “Men of Change” has remained in California since last March and never opened for viewing.
Through creativity, collaboration and innovation, the Anacostia Community Museum brought “Men of Change” to D.C. by creating their own version of the exhibition to display. Located outside near the Deanwood Recreational Center and Ron Brown High School in D.C.’s Ward 7, “Men of Change: Taking it to the Streets” reimagines the original exhibition in an accessible and Covid-friendly environment.
“Men of Change” is centered around the stories of Black men in America, from well-known activists and performers to ordinary people. According to S. Marquette Folley, content director for the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), the idea for the exhibition came after questioning if showing the humanity of Black men, a demographic that is too often feared and stereotyped, could change the dialogue around them. A team of advisors from many backgrounds, like academics, media, activism, art and writing came together around this question to create the exhibit.
“At the core of our discussions over several months of engagement, one heartbeat purposely directing our thinking emerged, and it was this: we will not be in dialogue with the stereotypes,” said Folley. “Spend no time trying to prove these men are human. That’s not the authentic story. Just tell the truth, just tell the story.”
Melanie Adams, director of the Anacostia Community Museum, explained that from an idea to opening day, a normal museum exhibit takes three to five years to plan, refine and execute. “Men of Change: Taking it to the Streets” was reimagined from its original form in just four months.
When redesigning the exhibit, the Anacostia Community Museum tried to make it an outdoor reflection of the original. The sections, men featured and positioning of images is consistent with the indoor exhibit. However, Folley believes that the accessible outdoor setting of the Anacostia Museum’s take on “Men of Change” adds to the exhibit.
“Anacostia’s exhibition does not need lightboxes to amplify the visibility of these men. Putting this exhibition outside in the community is lighting it up,” said Folley.
Not only is the exhibition located in Deanwood, but it is also in collaboration with the community of Deanwood. The original exhibition has seven parts: myth-breakers, fathering, community, imagining, catalysts and loving. Anacostia’s outdoor version adds another: Deanwood Men of Change. The men chosen for this section were nominated by their community and were selected by the same criteria as the men in the original seven sections: confidence, determination, responsibility, sacrifice and savviness, among other traits.
“It does elevate and provide this sense of pride in the community, that they were selected to host this important exhibit and also how they were able to come together during this time of Covid and figure out how to make it even better,” said Adams.
Due to Covid restrictions and the 24-hour outdoor format, there are no in-person guided tours of the exhibition, but the lack of docents led to another collaboration with the community. Students at Ron Brown High School and other community members recorded an audio walking tour in podcast form, where they guide visitors of the exhibit through each section.
“It was a great way to showcase the talent of the young men and the community members. It was also a way to add their voices to the exhibit,” said Adams. “If you listen to it, they’re talking about why these men resonate with them and how they feel the connection, and who they most think about in different sections.”
What started as a traveling exhibition turned into a collaborative display of a community. Located near the Deanwood Metro, the library, the recreation center and Ron Brown High School, even those in passing by can appreciate the monument to Black changemakers in the United States and their own community.
“Men of Change: Taking it to the Streets” is free and open 24 hours a day until May 31. The “Men of Change” audio walking tour is available anywhere you listen to podcasts. Learn more about the exhibition at www.anacostia.si.edu or www.menofchange.si.edu and follow @smithsonianacm on Instagram.
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