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National Museum of the American Latino recommended by presidential panel

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A presidential commission, created during the George W. Bush administration to study the feasibility of a National Museum of the American Latino, is recommending that a museum be built near the Capitol. The commission report, to be delivered to the White House and Congress on Thursday, also recommends that the museum be part of the Smithsonian Institution.

In very clear language, the report states that national recognition of the Hispanic contribution to the United States is long overdue. “The Mall, more than any other public space in our country does indeed tell the story of America, and yet that story is not complete. There must also be a living monument that recognizes that Latinos were here well before 1776 and that in this new century, the future is increasingly Latino, more than fifty million people and growing,” the report says.

The museum would follow a broad sweep of history, recognizing 500 years of contributions by the Latino community to the military, economics, government, arts and culture. The report immediately addressed some of the apprehension around creating separate museums for different ethnic groups. It described a broader purpose:

“At this moment in our country’s history when cultural understanding could not be more important to the enduring strength of our democratic ideals, we ask that you consider the importance of creating The Smithsonian American Latino Museum not only as a monument for Latinos, but as a 21st Century learning laboratory rooted in the mission that every American should have access to the stories of all Americans.”

The bill establishing the commission was signed by Bush in 2008. The recommendation comes from a 23-member commission that started studying the project’s merits in September 2009. It was chaired by Henry R. Munoz III, an architect and political activist from San Antonio. Members included producer Emilio Estefan Jr. and actress Eva Longoria.

In the report, “To Illuminate the American Story for All,” the commission pinpointed land on Pennsylvania Avenue, called the Capitol Site, which faces the Capitol and is within the definitions of the Mall. The site currently serves as a parking lot.

The desire for the facility to be part of the Smithsonian Institution will raise questions of whether the Smithsonian is already stretched too thin with 19 museums and whether it could take on added financial responsibility. The Smithsonian is already raising funds for a $500 million National Museum of African American History and Culture, scheduled to open in 2015. Congress has pledged to provide half of the costs of that project.

Noting that the museum would cost $600 million, the commission presented a plan to initially draw only from the private sector. It said it would raise $300 million from non-government sources and then request the balance from Congress over a 10-year period. It said planning and initial programming could be supported by nonfederal funds for the first six years .

Subjects in the museum would include the Spanish explorers who established the first European city in the United States — St. Augustine, Fla., in 1565, 41 years before the settlement of Jamestown — to current figures in culture, politics and business.

The Smithsonian has had a complicated history with its display and treatment of Hispanic culture. “Willful Neglect,” a 1994 report commissioned by the Smithsonian, slammed the institution. Out of that controversy, the Smithsonian Latino Center was created to sponsor exhibits and programs.

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