My Smithsonian Experience by Lucy Platten


Lucy Platten assisting with the arrangement of photographs from the Dale/Patterson Family collection.


My Smithsonian experience has been unbelievable; I have gained skills I thought I would never know, met people who have changed the way I see things and had the most remarkable time becoming more and more independent. I feel that this experience has been life altering to me, as of 2 years ago I would have never have had the courage to fly to America and volunteer at the Smithsonian, and now that I’ve done it, I can’t see myself working anywhere else.

In my week of volunteering at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum, I assisted Jennifer Morris, the museum’s archivist.  She introduced me to several aspects of the archival profession. I helped with the arrangement and description of the Dale/Patterson Family collection which documents the lives of  two families who settled in the Hillsdale, Anacostia area of Washington, DC in 1892.  Ms. Morris also trained me on Archivists’ Toolkit an archival data management system.  I  attended meetings and received a behind-the-scenes tour of the Archive Center at the National Museum of American Indian.   Jennifer was hard-working and kind-hearted and I enjoyed so much helping her, she aided me to learn as much as my 16 year old brain could hold.

At the museum I finally met the lady who answered my very first email offering me a placement at the Anacostia, Shelia Parker. It was wonderful to finally put a face to the name and she turned out to be one of the nicest people I have ever met. All the people at the museum welcomed me with open arms and wide smiles, I never at any point felt unwelcome or un-wanted; I even had an ongoing comical conversation with one of the guards about my stupid need to get a cab everywhere, when he insists to use Uber.

In the museum, I saw two enormously interesting exhibits first, How the Civil War Changed Washington for which I now know about Washington’s tragic Arsenal event of 1864, where 29 women were working when a colossal fire broke out killing 3 instantly and leaving 18 to die from vicious burns. Second, I learned about Panamanian immigration to Washington, DC from the Bridging the Americas exhibition.

In England I will be starting college this September, studying History Early Modern, English Literature, Psychology and Archeology. I hope that after college, when I turn 18, I can obtain an internship at the Smithsonian giving me the opportunity to be able to come back to DC and gain even more skills and meet even more generous and wholehearted people. There are a lot of people I need to thank, such as, Shelia Parker for answering an annoying English girl’s email, Jennifer Morris who taught me so much and created the best experience I could ever imagine and my family who’s financial and loving support got me to Washington, DC to make memories and start the journey to my, hopeful, aspiring future.

All that I can do now is to work hard and never lose sight of my dream to return to Washington, DC and work at a Smithsonian Museum!

Lucy Platten

Volunteer, summer 2015

Urban Ecology Engagement Initiative’s Second Cohort Presentations

Students in the second cohort of the Urban Ecology Engagement Initiative gather after their presentations.
Students in the second cohort of the Urban Ecology Engagement Initiative gather after their presentations.

Rising 7th graders at Hart Middle School gathered with family and friends in ACM’s program room to give their first presentations as part of Urban Waterways’ Urban Ecology Engagement initiative. The middle schoolers (cohort2.0) have just completed a six-week summer program made possible by the collaborative efforts of UPO’s P.O.W.E.R program, the  Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. The community stewardship initiative follows students from 7th through 12th grades and engages them in the collection of biological, chemical, and habitat data from five tributaries of the Anacostia River, the development of a database, the exploration of the impact of pollution on the watershed and the development of recommendations and possible solutions.

The event started with several members of the previous cohort (cohort 1.0) who are in the final preparations for the start of their freshman year at college. Students will be attending such schools as The University of Pittsburgh, Trinity University, Capitol Technology University, and Virginia State University to pursue degrees in Mechanical Engineering, Telecommunication Engineering, Astrophysics, Childhood Education, and Electrical Engineering.

Joseph Smith gets encouragement from a member of the graduating first cohort.

Members of the new cohort then stepped forward to present their experiences over the last six weeks. Unlike some of their friends who spent their days swimming or playing basketball, the middle schoolers spent part of their time in classrooms on the campus of Bowie State University. A significant part of their time was spent pushing their boundaries in the exploration of the Anacostia Watershed with boat rides on the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers and field trips to Sandy Spring, MD – a watershed headwater site and a major Underground Railroad depot, Washington Aqueduct, which provides the drinking water for DC, some surrounding counties and  DC Water’s Blue Plains Wastewater treatment plant. In their presentations, students provided definitions of a watershed, shared their favorite experiences from the field trips, and discussed future career goals. Many were impressed by the boat trips and the wildlife they saw in and along the river. Others were also struck by the amount of pollution they saw floating in the water. A major question asked by many of the presenters was how can the water be cleaned and the watershed made safer. Many students, impressed by their tour of Blue Palins, expressed an interest in pursuing careers in wastewater treatment by obtaining more information on the subject.

Students will continue their exploration of the Anacostia watershed as the school year continues through a variety of Saturday programming.

Michael Staton discusses one of the group’s field trips.


ACM’s Shelia Parker (2nd row) was among the guests who enjoyed the students’ presentations


ACM's  Education Program Coordinator Tony Thomas and members of the first and second cohorts.
ACM’s Education Program Coordinator Tony Thomas and members of the first and second cohorts.

The Art of Words by Sergio Gonzalez 2015 Latino Museum Studies Program Fellow

This summer I was honored to host Sergio as my summer fellow. He was exceptionally organized, curious, and thoughtful. I am excited to witness his future accomplishments. Below is a small sample of what he worked on and worked through during his weeks as a Smithsonian Latino Museum Studies Program Fellow at the Anacostia Community Museum. – Ariana Curtis, curator

By Sergio M. González/ Summer 2015

This summer, my charge as a fellow with the Smithsonian’s Latino Museum Studies Program (LMSP) has been to assist in increasing the representation, documentation, and research of Latino art, culture, and history throughout the museum’s many units. My field placement at the Anacostia Community Museum (ACM) has offered me the opportunity to work in a museum in the process of redefining its own mission, as it expands its purview to include the representation of Latino communities. Working with Ariana Curtis, ACM’s first curator of Latino Studies, I’ve spent most of my practicum experience surveying the museum’s permanent collections in search of ties to Latin America and Latino communities specifically, but immigration more broadly.

Through my survey of the ACM’s collections, I came across a Cuban refugee boat, an artifact whose publicly accessible provenance is unclear.

Cuban refugee boat as displayed in the exhibition Black Mosaic: Race, Color and Ethnicity Among Black Immigrants in Washington, DC.  Smithsonian Institution, Anacostia Community Museum Collections
Cuban refugee boat as displayed in the exhibition Black Mosaic: Race, Color and Ethnicity Among Black Immigrants in Washington, DC

I decided to commit some of my practicum experience to researching the object and rewriting the description, as it seemed to meet the criteria of being “current, compelling, and connected,” three C’s that help guide ACM’s mission.

I began researching and writing a new description to accompany the image of the boat on the Smithsonian’s website. I asked myself how, as a historian, I might convey the significance of this object and place it within a broader historical context. How, as a storyteller, might I engage my audience with vivid descriptions of the hazards that Cuban migrants confront on their ninety-mile voyage between Cuban and Floridian shores? My initial instincts for writing the description relied upon the writing of museum educator Larry Borowsky, who asks curators to pose three questions as they craft a narrative arc in their writing for museumgoers:

  • Does it create an air of suspense and/or tension?
  • Does it trace a journey through time and/or distance?
  • Does it encourage the reader to suspend disbelief?

In my first attempts to write what I considered to be an “effective” description, I hewed closely to my disciplinary training as a historian, and soon found myself writing more of a narrative than a collections description. My first draft of the collection description read more like an exhibition label than an object description that might accompany the boat in a collections search. The need for brevity within a collection description was a new concept for me – my dissertation-writing style would need to be scaled back. I wanted to include multiple political perspectives since this object interacts with contemporary political events. However, that muddied the delivery of pertinent historical facts that would place the boat in research context.

After meeting with Ariana and discussing the differences between a collections description and a museum tag, I decided to split the labor in half. First, I rewrote the description, focusing on conveying a clearer curatorial voice and sticking closer to the most important facts:

Some Cuban emigrants construct vessels like the one seen here from miscellaneous materials including discarded wood, sets of tires, and even converted taxis and trucks to travel the 90 miles from Cuba to the U.S. Known as balseros, rafters, or boatpeople, the largest single group of 125,000 Cubans departed from the port of Mariel to the U.S. in 1980. Between 1959 (Cuban Revolution) and the Mariel boatlift of 1980, 500,000 Cuban immigrants entered the United States.

Cubans have unique immigration laws, including the Cuban Adjustment Act. The 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act granted permanent resident status to any Cuban that had immigrated to the U.S. after January 1, 1959 and had lived in the U.S. for at least two years (reduced to one year in 1976). The 1995 revision of the Cuban Adjustment Act, popularly known as the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, allows Cuban migrants that reach U.S. land to stay, whereas those apprehended at sea are returned to Cuba.

According to their public website, the Miami-based non-profit organization Hermanos al Rescate (Brothers to the Rescue), founded in 1991, has rescued more than 4,200 Cuban refugees attempting to enter U.S.

Next, I turned to writing a museum tag under one hundred words that might accompany the Cuban refugee boat in an exhibit. I’ve imagined the boat as a part of a larger exhibit detailing Cuban immigration experiences to the United States in the twentieth century. As part of a full exhibit, much of the corroborating information not necessarily tied to this specific boat in the collections description above will be include in museum tags that would accompany other artifacts or images.

Between 1959 and 1994, more than 70,000 Cuban citizens fled their country for the United States in balsas (rafts) like the one seen here. Facing the 90 miles of treacherous water that separate Cuba and the Florida coast, balseros (rafters) constructed makeshift boats and homemade rafts out a number of materials, including scrap pieces of wood, discarded tires, and even converted taxis.

Sergio M. González is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a 2015 Smithsonian Latino Museum Studies Program Fellow.


Sergio Gonzalez poses at the Anacostia Community Museum at the completion of his fellowship
Sergio Gonzalez poses at the Anacostia Community Museum at the completion of his fellowship