In the last decade, the Smithsonian has opened the National Museum of the American Indian and commissioned the The National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is expected to open in 2015. Now a commission has been tasked to determine options for a museum focusing on Latino contributions. The National Museum of the American Latino Commission is scheduled to release its findings next month; however, even with Congressional support and Eva Longoria’s star power, the commission has a tough sell. In addition to budget constraints and a general immigrant hostility emanating from certain quarters of the GOP, Representative Jim Moran, D-Virginia, was recently quoted as saying, “I don’t want a situation where whites go to the original museum, African-Americans go to the African-American museum, Indians go to the Indian museum, Hispanics go to the Latino American museum. That’s not America.”
Congressman Moran is wrong on several points. “America” is not a fixed construct but a constantly evolving ideal. For example, when Congress founded the Smithsonian in 1846 those of African descent were still largely enslaved and not considered citizens. Nor were American Indians, who weren’t even recognized as persons in the eyes of the law. Hispanics were the majority population in the newly acquired states of Texas, Florida, and California, but many weren’t allowed to vote. “America” has clearly been a different thing altogether at different points in its history.
Rep. Moran’s fear of Balkanized National Mall is also groundless. Were the Congressman to avail himself of the free museums in our nation’s capital, he would quickly observe that none are being overrun by hordes of brown people. He would also realize that our country’s white citizens, as well as, our many guests from abroad seem quite interested in learning about America’s marginalized citizens. If we turn to the Smithsonian’s estimated visits for each of its museums, we find that the American Indian Museum is among the most popular.
In 2010 1.3 million visits were made to the American Indian museum. Only four of the Smithsonian’s nineteen facilities received more visits, and one of those isn’t even a museum but the National Zoo. Unless half the Native Americans calculated by the U.S. Census made their way to Washington, DC last year, we can assume that other racial and ethnic groups made up a significant portion of those visits. It should also be noted that the Holocaust Museum, which isn’t a part of the Smithsonian Institute, receives an estimated 2 million visits every year.
American is still grappling with how to give proper recognition to all of its citizens who have made significant contributions to this company. What would Congressman Moran have us do about the neglected history of the half of this country who are not white? Does it make sense that our museums reflect one face of this nation?
Some 20 years ago, a task force produced a report called, “Willful Neglect,” which found that Latinos weren’t represented in any meaningful way in any of the Smithsonian museums. For example, of the 470 people featured in the “notable Americans” section of the National Portrait Gallery, only 2 are Latinos. That news shouldn’t only be troubling to the 50 million Hispanics in this country, but to all of us.
I don’t hear Moran proposing that we merge the Air and Space Museum with the History Museum. Nor should he–both are needed. Why? For the same reason separate Halls of Fame are needed to honor those who’ve contributed to football, basketball, and baseball; a litany of awards shows celebrate country, soul, and Latino music; and the Golden Globes, Oscars, and Emmys are all needed to acknowledge theatrical achievements. There is simply no way to cram everything of significance into one general vehicle. A few big names and events will cross over and make their way into the general discussion, but a platform that showcases a more narrow focus allows for a greater level of depth and expertise than can be acheived otherwise. The curators of our national history seem to know this.