DC’s History Center reopens, showcasing the city’s past

Maren Orchard felt giddy on Saturday as she waited to open the doors of the DC History Center to the public.

For weeks, she and other staff members had been actively preparing for this moment. The day before, there had been a frantic rush to finish printing visitor programs and laminating event signs. On Saturday morning, she woke up at 4 a.m. and sent herself a reminder to give the volunteer guides their homework and talking points.

Atop these talking points, said Orchard, the center’s program manager, “We’re here! We exist! We want you to come see everything we have to offer on DC”

The past few years have been difficult for the DC History Center. Even before the pandemic, it briefly opened as the City Museum of Washington in the 2000s, but it never attracted enough paying patrons. Then the building – a beautiful Beaux-Arts style structure called the Carnegie Library – was closed due to mold discovered inside.

Finally, Apple arrived with an unprecedented and innovative offer to finance a total renovation. The tech company would open a flagship store on the first floor and locate the DC History Center on the second floor. The museum had just reopened to the public a few months before the pandemic hit in 2020.

“Most people have never been able to see what we’ve done with space. They don’t know we’re here,” executive director Laura Brower Hagood said. “This is our first major event since the Covid. We need a bit of practice, but it’s super exciting. The thing we all wonder is: we think it’s great, but will someone else think it’s great? »

More than 400 people registered for the museum’s “open day” on Saturday, and by late morning a steady stream of visitors were browsing the exhibits.

Among the first to arrive were Hutton Easley and his wife, Lolly. They moved to the DC area five years ago after living in Richmond, but still don’t feel fully connected to the city. “We’re still learning about DC,” Hutton said, as he studied a city map from 1857. “Much of it is dominated by federal institutions and agencies. You don’t see much of the local side and learn about its history.”

Next to him, his wife leafed through a photo album of a DC family kept since 1923 and tried to imagine the life led by the inhabitants of the city of yesteryear. She laughed when she came across a photo of the family cat, simply titled ‘The Local Milkman’.

“It’s so personal and intimate,” she said.

Across the hall, in a display of panoramic black-and-white photos, April Boddie and her friend Indy James pause before a portrait of an all-black ninth-grade class at Randall Junior High School in 1954. The photo had been taken. just as the United States Supreme Court was deliberating on cases that would desegregate American schools.

“Look at their hair,” Jodie said. “Look at their blouses and suits.”

“I wonder where they all are today,” said Boddie, a permanent resident of DC.

They looked at a face highlighted by museum curators – a schoolboy who would become Motown superstar Marvin Gaye. “Incredible,” exclaimed Boddie.

In the center of the museum, curators had assembled a timeline of the city’s history – from the Native American tribes that inhabited the area in 1600 to the expansion of the city’s subway system in the 1970s. Staff members had left blank post-it notes to invite visitors to add their own suggestions of landmark moments in DC history.

“Meadows 1910s. Wilson discriminated against black federal employees,” one person scribbled.

“The 1959 Southwest DC urban renewal displaces thousands of black residents,” another memo read.

Roy Priest, 80, has lived much of this turbulent history. Standing in front of the timeline, he recalls visiting the Carnegie Library as a young black boy – when it was one of the few public institutions not segregated by race.

“The sheer scale and size of it just seemed so incredible to me,” he said.

Priest – former president of an African-American social group called the Bachelor-Benedict Club – had been invited along with other members of the group to speak to visitors about their African-American social club and how it had fostered community in times of discrimination and disenfranchisement.

“The city is changing and people often only see what it is now. But the past is so important,” said current club chairman Andrew Moss. “We don’t want to forget anything.

By afternoon, History Center employees had settled into an easy pace, relieved by the influx of visitors coming up the stairs – past the throngs of Apple customers on the first floor and signs offering trades of iPhone.

Hagood, the executive director, said the day was a success as she jostled from area to area. “It’s exhilarating to see people connect with the community they live in,” she said.

In recent years — amid racial protests and political unrest — the nation’s capital has become more important and relevant than ever, she noted. “You have so many Washingtonians over the years who have advocated for representation and change, but you can’t effect change if you don’t understand history and what caused these issues in the first place.”

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