How Can the American Latino Museum Best Answer the Call of the Mall?

Philip Kennicott, Washington Post, July 25, 2010

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Since the Indian museum [the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian,] opened in September 2004, the number of visitors has eroded. In 2005, 2.2 million passed through its doors, but it will be touch and go, this year, to maintain last year’s count of 1.4 million.

With a 23-member commission reporting to Congress in September on the feasibility of a major new museum on the Mall–the National Museum of the American Latino–it’s worth taking a hard look at the problems of the Indian museum. The last thing the Mall needs is a huge new architectural bulk with minimal cultural impact.

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More important than how the museum is governed is how it is conceived and executed. The big danger is that the National Museum of the American Latino will arrive just as the heyday of ethnic museums is passing.

The primary problem with the Indian museum is that it was organized with Native American communities rather than general visitors as its primary client. Exhibition space was turned over to tribal groups to tell their own stories. The result was fractured and often chaotic.

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Indeed, the entire concept of a Latino American Museum seems almost retro. Sometime between 2040 and 2050, according to a study done by the Center for the Future of Museums, today’s minority groups will make up a majority of the American population. Americans will be “hybridized,” with multiple ethnic strands to their identity.

Or, as Gregory Rodriguez of the New America Foundation put it at a lecture at the Canadian Embassy in February, “We have no idea what it means to be Latino in 2050. None.”

{snip} There’s resistance to them [ethnically focused museums] among people who don’t identify as minorities, and while much of that resistance is based in racial and ethnic animus, some of it represents legitimate concern that history won’t be well served by an infinite fracturing into sub-narratives, each under the control of a different cultural group.

It seems likely that within a generation, the Mall could have a large collection of very quiet and not terribly relevant museums. Not because the stories they have to tell are irrelevant or uninteresting, but because the game changed. The appetite for history will be for complicated master narratives that cross lines between ethnic groups, that dip into technology and economics and art, and can’t easily be told in an old-fashioned, balkanized museum of ethnic identity.

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