Investigating Where We Live


Investigating Where We Live

National Building Museum
401 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20001
Phone: 202.272-2448
Fax: 202.272.2564

Focus: Design, History, Media Arts, Photography, Visual Arts

Annual Number Participating: 35

Ages: Middle School, High School

Annual Budget: $70,500.00

Partners: 826DC; Historical Society of Washington, DC; National Museum of African American History and Culture; National Park Service; Vivid Solutions Gallery

Funders: Clark Charitable Foundation; Hattie M. Strong Foundation; Jack Kent Cooke Foundation; The Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation; The Tower Companies; The William Randolph Hearst Foundation; An Anonymous Donor

Every summer, 35 students from the Washington, DC, area eagerly put on their exhibition-designer hats and spend five weeks developing their photographic eye. This isn’t just an academic exercise: The National Building Museum (NBM) displays their work as part of its Investigating Where We Live (IWWL) program, for 11 months, attracting tens of thousands of visitors.

In keeping with the Museum’s focus on the built environment, its IWWL group concentrates on a different Washington neighborhood each year. Students have explored revitalized neighborhoods, such as Capitol Hill’s Stanton Park, as well as Anacostia, a historically underserved community in the southeast quadrant, according to Andrew Costanzo, the NBM’s Outreach Programs Manager.

Every neighborhood, however, has a unique story to tell. Fanning out with digital cameras, recorders, and notepads, the young people interview community residents, search archives, and rely on their keen observation skills to find that story. Working in teams, they next design a way to visually share it with the Museum’s visitors, through photos and text.

As they work out the details of their exhibition, participants engage in the process of “solving a problem or addressing a challenge,” Costanzo explains. The project also encourages the students to “think about the world around them as a series of choices and consider what it takes to make changes in their own community or to preserve its history,” he points out.

Although the participants consult and collaborate with NBM staff and volunteers throughout the program, the exhibition conveys the students’ unique perspectives and often contains surprising insights. For example, when participants investigated the Anacostia neighborhood in 2012, they discovered a far more nuanced story of diversity, change, and community than the blight-focused narrative often presented in media portrayals. In the video produced for the Anacostia exhibition, Lorran P. — one of the students — summed it up thusly: “I think I mainly learned I should never make assumptions about someplace until I’ve been there and heard residents tell me what it’s really like.” IWWL students are able to gain a different viewpoint because some residents are more willing to open up to young people than to adult researchers, notes Costanzo.

Through IWWL, the NBM has found a novel way to engage a traditionally difficult-to-reach audience: young adults. Together, their combined efforts draw crowds. By prominently featuring the young people’s work, the NBM not only honors the participants’ accomplishments, but also sends the message that there’s a welcoming space for them in the museum world, states Costanzo.

I learned that many neighborhoods in Washington, DC, aren’t what they are believed to be, or what people say they are. And, they have so much more heart and story than meets the eye.

Lorran P. Participant, Investigating Where We Live