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Washington DC's New City Museum to Show the 'Real' Washington - 2003-06-04


For most visitors to Washington D.C., the city means monuments, Smithsonian museums, and politicians. But for the more than one half million people who live in Washington, the nation's capital is much more: diverse neighborhoods, a colorful history and local politics. Now, Washingtonians finally have their own museum, a museum about the real Washington.

The voices of Washingtonians. They're a part of what is called, simply, the City Museum. Exhibits curator, Laura Schiavo explains why the City Museum is so important. "In a city of many, many museums as we all know that Washington is, this is the only museum in the city dedicated to telling Washington's many, many stories," she said.

One story told in the City Museum is a neighborhood that few tourists or even many area residents are familiar with: the so-called "U Street" corridor, which has weathered civil rights activism, riots and gentrification. Through it all, it remains a proud community of African Americans.

The City Museum is housed in an elegant marble structure, transformed into a museum after decades of planning. Work on the museum began several years ago, and completed at a cost of $25 million.

"We're now in the old Carnegie Library, which was built at the turn of the century [1903] with money donated by [industrialist] Andrew Carnegie," said Laura Schavo, explaining the building's origins. "This is a building beloved by many Washingtonians. People talk about studying here and using this building and learning here. So we're happy that that learning process will continue in a somewhat different way but in some ways, the same way, because we'll have our research library located here and people will be able to come and research the city's history."

The City Museum is not located in the main tourist area of Washington, where the Smithsonian museums line the central Mall. But curator Schiavo says the opening of the City Museum next to another new landmark will help attract visitors.

"We're very pleased with our neighbor, the Washington Convention Center, which I'm able to look at right now it's across the street from us," she said. "What we're hoping is that people who come to the city for conventions as they will and already are, will literally be able to walk out of the convention center into the City Museum and learn about the city they're visiting. While the museums on the Mall and those off the Mall do wonderful things and tell wonderful stories, none of those are really the stories about Washington."

Many visitors to the City Museum will begin by viewing an orientation film. But as Ms. Schiavo points out, it's quite an unusual one. "It's funny, it's shocking in some ways, it has moveable sets," she said. "It's not your typical orientation movie. In some ways it's a little dis-orienting. What it brings home is that real people live here. Washington has complicated and varying stories that can be told about it. And I won't give too much away, but suffice it to say that it starts with a stereotypical slide lecture about Federal monuments and goes on from there."

The multimedia show uses scrims, live objects and video. Portraits of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass appear to "speak" through special effects. The show opens with a lifelike, senior tour guide named Penelope Inkster speaking to the audience.

The City Museum exhibits span from the area's original settlement thousands of years ago by Native Americans the Piscataway Indians- to the continuing struggle to get voting rights for Washingtonians. There are displays about the influx of government employees and about the so-called "freedom papers" which African Americans were required to carry before the Emancipation Proclamation - to prove they were "free" people and not slaves. Artifacts include a teapot from the old Wormley Hotel, a shovel used to dig the first Metro subway station site, and a whole room filled with old maps and photographs.

The museum's Laura Schiavo says the items come from many sources. "In terms of photographs, we've really culled from [sources] far and wide," she said. "We have photos from the Library of Congress, the National Museum of American History, Morehead-Spingarn [collection] at Howard University, Georgetown University archives, the Sumner School archives of D.C. Schools history. So the photographs and images you see are from across the city. In the sports exhibit, which is across the hall from where we are, there's a lot more loaning and lending from collectors across the country who collect Washington related sports memorabilia."

Among the sports memorabilia in the City Museum are: a folding metal seat from the old Griffiths Stadium, where the Washington Senators baseball team played, and a Wheaties cereal box celebrating the championship season of the Washington Redskins football team. A room of exhibits from Washington's ethnic communities will open soon with a display about the Chinatown neighborhood.

Ms. Schiavo says Washington's City Museum is one of many such museums in the United States. "The Museum of the City of New York is a good example," continued museum's curator. "I know from speaking and working with Washington photographers in putting together these exhibits, two people have said how wonderful it is that there is this place that is the City Museum. It's a venue for gatherings, for the exhibition of [art] work. It's something other cities have had and Washington had been missing."

Laura Schiavo, exhibits curator of the new City Museum of Washington D.C., which hopes to show visitors to the Nation's Capital the "real Washington."

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