Week 24: Bladensburg Waterfront Park

Prince George’s County Department of Parks and Recreation Mission:In partnership with our citizens, the Department of Parks and Recreation provides comprehensive park and recreation programs, facilities, and services which respond to changing needs within our communities. We strive to preserve, enhance, and protect our open spaces to enrich the quality of life for present and future generations in a safe and secure environment.

I was recently surfing museum-related blogs and came across Nina Simon’s post on white privilege. The next day, I visited Bladensburg Waterfront Park, located along the Anacostia River at the crossroads of Bladensburg, Colmar Manor, and Cottage City, Maryland.

I had stumbled upon Simon’s blog post, and I basically stumbled upon BWP as a museum choice at the last minute. (I had planned on a different museum, a Metro-accessible one, but then I stumbled upon some very helpful tweets detailing planned Metro disruptions not announced on Metro’s website, and it seemed better to postpone the original museum plan for a day when the Metro trip would not be so cumbersome.) With all this stumbling, I found myself considering the Bladensburg visit in the context of Simon’s provocative article and the dozens of reader comments it garnered.

Simon made some points that quickly had me nodding in agreement: that exhibits of artifacts from non-dominant groups often cast people and cultures as “other.” That there is bias that well-meaning people might not be aware of, but need to become aware of. That bias can also manifest itself in less well-meaning forms, like the appalling story of a museum concerned that a link on its website was “too black” for its brand.

The point I struggled more with, and which received a good deal of attention in the comments section, was, in Simon’s words:  “The popular reference point for what a museum is–a temple for contemplation–is based on a Euro-centric set of myths and implies a white set of behaviors.” Simon goes on to explain that visitors go to museums for a variety of reasons (as researched by John Falk) besides quiet contemplation, and that museums can take less temple-like forms but are often seen as “unprofessional” when they do so.

In the comments section, Eric Siegel wrote,

“Whether it is one person and a book, one person and a piece of music or a painting, a group of people together participating in a religious ritual, going ice fishing with friends, camping, etc etc contemplation and quiet is something that some people of all cultures value as an aspect of life.”

There are more dimensions to consider than just race, as Sheila Hoffman alluded to in her comment:

“I may be wearing gender and ethnocentric horse-blinders, or then again maybe it’s a product of my poverty-stricken childhood, but I do think there is profound value in material objects and physical spaces in which to contemplate and protect them.”

All human beings certainly have a range of human needs. The article got me thinking of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which has received its own criticism for being ethnocentric. I am not going to attempt to rank the need for peaceful contemplation among other human needs, but I can say that museums that only cater to this need miss out on opportunities to be relevant to lots of people, all looking for many different things to different degrees at different times. As Randy C. Roberts commented on Simon’s post:

“I think that people have confused museums being places of expressing humanness with them being places of contemplation. Humanness is expressed through connection, relationship, playfulness, joy, ecstasy and lots of other ways of being as well as through reflection and contemplation. I think about museums as temples through a lens of knowing that people sing in temples; they dance, they talk, they celebrate and they reflect. Museums, to me, at their best are neither purely about quiet contemplation nor about social interaction; they are about understanding and participating in what it means to be human in all of its complexity.”

At Bladensburg Waterfront Park, there were plenty of features that could allow for contemplation on a quiet day. If the park were not crowded, visitors could sit in one of many gazebos and look out at the river. Park-goers could pay respects at the war memorials, imagine the grounds as they would have looked during the Battle of Bladensburg in the War of 1812, and enjoy a stroll through the gardens shaped like a hot air balloon (in honor of the first unmanned hot air balloon flight taking place there). With the exhibit space to oneself, a visitor could fully focus on the movie and exhibit panels without distractions. Visitors on a quiet day could learn about the history of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and then look up at the flag – which was at half-staff the day of my visit as we mourned the bombing at the Boston Marathon.

Earth Day art at Bladensburg Waterfront Park

Earth Day art at Bladensburg Waterfront Park

On the day I visited, however, the park was not a temple for contemplation. An Earth Day river cleanup and party were underway, with a large and diverse crowd at the park. Children shouted as they played on the playground. Teens, understandably tired after cleaning up trash all morning, were relaxing in the visitor center. Community organizations had tables set up; among these were the Girl Scouts selling their cookies and the Anacostia Community Museum, which currently has an exhibit and initiative on improving the Anacostia River. A long line of people waited for food while a reggae band performed live music and encouraged people to dance. There was a temporary exhibit of art made of trash materials.

The Earth Day celebration may not have met anyone’s need to be alone with one’s thoughts while walking along a river, but it did address several other human needs and desires. It helped fulfill people’s needs for fun, play, celebration, and social interaction. As a community service opportunity, it got citizens involved in helping to take care of their local natural resources. And the purpose of this event also relates to environmental and physiological needs: a clean Anacostia River would affect the food and water sources, and health, of local residents.

Happy Earth Day!


April’s blog theme is Local History.


About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
This entry was posted in Articles and Books, Museums and Holidays, Weekly Museum Visits Part III and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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