Congress authorizes new Smithsonian museums dedicated to American Latino and women’s history

A Long Time Coming

Congress authorizes new Smithsonian museums dedicated to American Latino and women’s history

The National Mall (Richard Ricciardi/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)

The future presence of a pair of new Smithsonian museums, the National Museum of the American Latino and the Women’s National History Museum, on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., was secured late last night after Congress approved their creation as part of a $2.3 trillion omnibus spending bill.

While the eyes of most Americans were trained on the nearly $900 billion coronavirus relief package included in the massive, 5,593-page bill, the authorization of the two long-sought museums did not go unnoticed by those who have been working tirelessly for years, even decades, to see them become a reality.

The museum-establishing legislation first cleared the House of Representatives earlier this year, in February for the Women’s National History Museum and July for the National Museum of the American Latino.

While both museums enjoyed broad bipartisan support in both the House and Senate (the National Museum of the American Latinos sponsors in the Senate are Democrat Bob Menendez of New Jersey and John Cornyn of Texas, while the Women’s National History Museum has been shepherded by Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, and Republican Susan Collins of Maine), they encountered a temporary hurdle earlier this month when Republican Sen. Mike Lee, a Libertarian-leaning firebrand from Utah, blocked legislation that would ensure their creation and, in turn, is why they were folded into the larger end-of-year bill.

“The last thing we need is to further divide an already divided nation with an array of segregated, separate-but-equal museums for hyphenated identity groups,” said Lee, whose words were immediately greeted with widespread censure from fellow lawmakers and boosters of the museums.

Nonprofit advocacy group The Friends of the American Latino Museum called Lee’s move “dismissive, condescending, and misguided,” while the perpetually disappointed Collins said that the blockage of her legislation by a Republican colleague marked a “sad moment.”

But during a turbulent, time-warping year that’s seemingly stretched on forever, Lee’s legislation-thwarting actions, although very recent, now seems like ancient history as it’s now clear that the museums will indeed move forward and those backing their approval are afforded the opportunity to relish the long-awaited achievement.

“We have overcome tremendous obstacles and unbelievable hurdles to get to this historic moment, but, as I’ve said before, Latinos are used to overcoming obstacles,” said Menendez in a statement. “With this vote, Latinos and Latinas across our nation will finally have their stories, struggles, and impact on our country validated by the United States Congress. As a first-generation Cuban American, I know what it’s like to feel invisible in a nation where Latinos are seldom celebrated.”

Earnest efforts to establish a national historic and cultural venue dedicated to Latinx life in America date back to at least 1994 with the publication of the 60-page report “Willful Neglect: The Smithsonian Institution and U.S. Latinos.” Executed by a specially formed 15-member Smithsonian task force, the report decried the woeful lack of Latino representation within the hallowed institution, in both operational and curatorial senses, and called for the creation of a national museum focused squarely on Latino history and culture as one method of rectifying this discrepancy. American is home to over 60 million people of Latino descent, representing 18.5 of the total population.

Of course, there’s now the larger questions of where and when. While the National Mall is an obvious and natural location for the National Museum of the American Latino and the National Women’s National History Museum, available real estate—or the lack thereof—is already a concern as the initial planning phases for both museums now have the formal green light to begin. The museums have two years to designate a site. An expansion and revamping of the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building, completed in 1881, has been floated as one potential home for the National Museum of the American Latino.

And in terms of timing, the opening of both museums, which have yet to be allocated funds for physical homes and the future collections that will populate them, is still likely years away. As noted by the New York Times, it took 13 years for the Museum of African American History and Culture, the last Smithsonian museum to be approved by Congress, to open its doors to the public from the time it was formally established in 2003. Per the Times, it’s been estimated that the National Museum of the American Latino will cost $600 million and the Women’s National History Museum, which currently exists as a Virginia-based online museum with educational and research programming, will carry a price tag of roughly $375 million. The cost of each museum will be split between federal funds and private donations.

While both museums still face a long road ahead, this first step, authorization from Congress, is nothing short of victorious.

“For too long, women’s stories have been left out of the telling of our nation’s history, but with this vote, we begin to rectify that,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), a sponsor of the House version of the women’s history museum bill. “Americans of all ages deserve to see and be inspired by the remarkable women who helped shape this nation—seeing role models doing the thing to which we aspire, can change the course of someone’s life.”