Creating Experiences in the Community for the Community
How Anacostia Community Museum recruited a team of creative young professionals to help bring museum experiences directly to the community
In the summer of 2020 Andrea Jones, Director of Education at Anacostia Community Museum, was confronting a challenge facing most museums across the globe- how can we continue to serve our communities and create meaningful experiences under these extraordinary circumstances?
Many were learning how to quickly translate exhibit content and on-site programming to virtual platforms to provide moments of joy and learning to communities from home. But Andrea and a network of museum designers, activities, and educators that make up Free the Museum came together to discuss ways they can bring relevant and thought-provoking experiences outside the walls of the building and directly to the communities they served.
ACM has a long history of finding new ways to engage the community. The museum was the perfect place for this kind of strategy.
These three factors—the extreme constraints of a global pandemic, a community of innovative museum leaders, and a strategic goal—were the foundation for The Activators.
Andrea, and many others in the field, saw the impact and agency of museums diluted by an overreliance on the physical space. This reliance was also making museums vulnerable.
The new idea? Reduce reliance on the building by taking exhibits and content directly to the community and engaging individuals who cannot gather safely but also those who might not have ever entered the museum before.
Anacostia’s generated an overarching strategy to meet audiences where they were, including large outdoor exhibitions, “Urban Adventure Kits” and they even built a walking tour app! But another central pillar of their strategy was the development of The Activators–a street team of creative young professionals focused on curating experiences embedded in and leveraging the community’s assets. These experiences were designed to be novel interruptions to daily life that provoke reflection and discussion about history, community, and justice.
Building the team was a critical part of success for Anacostia and Andrea knew she had to go about it a little bit differently. The Activators needed to be creative professionals who understood social media and had a background in video editing or photography. As someone who has trained hundreds of volunteers and docents up until then, Andrea knew those candidates didn’t frequently cross her desk. For many different reasons, the typical volunteer or docent is older, potentially retired, and deeply interested in certain aspects of history. While these candidates are fantastic volunteers, Anacostia knew they weren’t the right fit for this role.
Andrea decided she wanted to attract new candidates and she didn’t want volunteers; she wanted paid and consistent educators. She crafted a job description to attract young creative professionals and used word-of-mouth recruiting, Facebook posts and targeted recruiting from arts organizations. She didn’t explicitly include ‘museum educator’ because it might limit the pool. This process worked!
Anacostia hired a team of 4 (5 as of 2023)- with backgrounds in music, theater, and poetry – who were excited to join a unique initiative with an organization rooted in social justice. This new approach to recruiting posed some interesting challenges (more on that later!) but many more opportunities, as Anacostia needed fresh eyes and ideas to truly bring the museum to the community.
First, what is a Neighborhood Activation? The concept behind these Activations is to view the area surrounding museums – the environment, the history, the institutions – as a “magnificent collection” and then applying the same thought, intention, and creativity you use to create on-site exhibits to building creative and accessible experiences out in the world.
There are many tactics educators can use to craft these activations, depending on the topics and the purpose. Here are a few from Free the Museums’ resource kit:
The Activators curate many powerful experiences throughout Washington, D.C. Below are descriptions of two activations developed and implemented by the team.
Solomon Brown Performance
Anacostia had an online exhibit about Barry Farm- a neighborhood in Washington D.C. that had been erased by the building of a road. The Activators brought this exhibit out into the community through performance. One of the team members portrayed Solomon Brown, a resident of that neighborhood and the first Black Smithsonian employee who wrote poetry about his struggle to succeed in a racist system despite his talent + ambition.
Memorial To Barry Farm
The Activators also created a memorial to Barry Farm on the very road that lead to its erasure. This memorial included small cards and posters highlighting information about this former neighborhood. Though community members had driven this road every day, they didn’t know the history and learned more through interacting with this experience.
The Activators have been operating since January 2021 and have had an impact on their community. They’ve curated X activations that have engaged community members who typically wouldn’t visit the museum. They have provoked reflection and discussion about the history of segregation in their community and how yesterday’s unjust policies and practices impact lives today.
As a result of the hard work of the team and the quality of the activations, Anacostia’s social media following has 22%. Andrea Jones says, “If we held a Zoom call about an exhibit, we might get 50 people to join. But if we create an activation and put it on social media, it gets thousands of views.”
This work’s surprising and happy outcome has been enthusiastic support from funders. Anacostia has received at least one significant grant to grow its efforts.
Andrea was looking for and found a team of extraordinarily creative young professionals. But there were a few challenges with recruiting outside of the normal channels and traditional approaches.
Onboarding + Training
Unlike many who seek out museum docent or education jobs, this team didn’t have a background or experience in how museums work and think about education. Introducing The Activators to the principles of historical interpretation was important so that they could curate experiences that were aligned with museum best practices and Smithsonian principles.
One of the main reasons the candidates were selected was their creativity and entrepreneurial spirit. Andrea collaborated with the team to develop workflows and processes that enabled that creativity but also led to the timely launch of activations. Her approach was to bring the team into that conversation with transparency and shared vision and then leverage simple tools in the Google suite to track projects and communicate deadlines.
Anacostia is a small team. Andrea is extremely passionate about the street team’s work but knows she couldn’t give them all the support they need daily. They had questions about the budget, timeline, materials, and ideas. They needed a dedicated team leader. Anacostia recently hired an education program manager to serve in this role and to strengthen the team.
We’d love to hear from you!
Do you have a powerful story of successful community engagement or collaboration you’d like to share? Or do you want to connect and learn more about community engagement resources and supports?
Reach out to your National Outreach Manager. They’d love to connect and share ideas!