Years away from having a building of their own, Smithsonian staff are already at work on the exhibition ¡Presente! for next year
Eduardo Díaz, the director of the Smithsonian Latino Center, seldom has free time, and despite the pandemic closing the Institution’s museums for much of 2020, his schedule only got busier. He and his team became heavily engaged with creating the center’s first exhibition space. The 4,500-square-foot Molina Family Latino Gallery, envisioned as an introduction to centuries of Latino heritage and culture, and located within the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, had been in the planning stages for years, and construction was well underway for the much-anticipated opening next May.
Then, on December 27, 2020, came news that former President Donald Trump had signed into law a bipartisan bill to create the National Museum of the American Latino. The legislation had languished in Congress since its first introduction in 2011.
This was good news; the Smithsonian Latino Center has always positioned itself as an incubator of Latino curatorial talent and as a predecessor to a Smithsonian museum that would focus on the Latino experience. Indeed, Díaz and his staff consider the new exhibition space as a testing ground for what a future museum might offer. The work involved goes well beyond a dress rehearsal. With such a broad mandate, the center has to carefully weigh what to cover and how to cover a culture made up of different ethnicities and backgrounds.
And that’s the easy part. Díaz—who now holds two posts as head of the Latino Center and interim director of the new Latino museum—knows that many moving parts are involved, not just with the gallery, but with the future museum. The 2020 legislation directed the Smithsonian to create an advisory board. In June, the board of trustees was announced, making headlines with such well-known names as José Andrés, the creator of World Central Kitchen, the Grammy Award winner Emilio Estefan, the actor and producer Eva Longoria, TV producer Sofía Vergera, journalist Soledad O’Brien, as well as prominent entrepreneurs, philanthropists and investors.
The question of where to put the museum—on the National Mall or somewhere close by—must be determined by December 2022. A building design has to be decided on. And a lot of money needs to be raised—half the funding will come from the federal government and the other half will have to come from private donations. To open the National Museum of African American History and Culture, board members and staff needed to raise more than $270 million; Díaz says this time around, it’s hard to estimate how much will need to be raised, but it will be in the hundreds of millions.
If past experiences with that museum and with the National Museum of the American Indian augur anything, it’s that both the gallery and museum will be heralded as a triumph, albeit an imperfect one. They will proudly deliver a profound visitor experience, yet no museum could fully grapple with the complexities of Latino experiences in this country. The museum, once finished, will be an inescapable part of the Smithsonian landscape; it will exist and nothing will ever take away from that.
But first, the center has to complete work on its first new exhibition “¡Presente! A Latino History of the United States” opening in the Molina Family Latino Gallery. The gallery, mainly funded by descendants of C. David Molina, founder of the California-based Molina Healthcare and his wife Mary, will feature more than 200 artifacts, such as a refugee raft used by those fleeing communist Cuba, a dress worn by the “Queen of Salsa” Celia Cruz, and a registration form for slaves in Puerto Rico. The show will also feature newly commissioned illustrations of luminaries such as the Indigenous freedom fighter Toypurina, Mexican American muralist Judy Baca, the Puerto Rican educator Antonia Pantoja and the Colombian American drag queen Julio Sarria. The seminal exhibition will be supported by educational and cultural programs and also feature a communal space for gathering and conversation.
Devoted to telling the storied history of the Latino experience, the exhibition team had difficult decisions to make over what to include. “A lot of the conversation was originally on how we could best use this space. It’s a limited amount of square footage; real estate is so much of a luxury at the Institution,” says Emily Key, the center’s director of education.
Key says her team realized that a deep-dive approach on every topic ultimately wouldn’t work. So, they set on creating a broad overview that would lead to more specialized sections of the gallery, such as the Mexican-American War or activist movements. Another crucial component was getting buy-in from American Latinos. So, the team engaged with stakeholders who played a critical role in shaping the design and focus of the gallery. Such actions were crucial to not only ensure accuracy but authenticity.
“If you’re building a museum that is culturally and ethnic specific, you need to have that first voice at the table when you’re creating it to really ground the experience in,” Key says.
Ranald Woodaman, the center’s exhibitions and public program director says that staff sat down with many of the various Latino groups, including Mexican Americans, Salvadoran Americans, Afro-Latinos, Bolivian immigrants and Indigenous peoples in an attempt at focus testing.