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In siting a national Latino museum, the best view is the long view

L'Enfant Promenade, a forgotten spur of 10th Street SW, could become one of the finest addresses downtown with some help from a well-sited Latino museum.
L'Enfant Promenade, a forgotten spur of 10th Street SW, could become one of the finest addresses downtown with some help from a well-sited Latino museum. (Jennifer Beeson Gregory - The Washington Post)

"There are a lot of positive feelings about helping to pioneer the redevelopment of that corridor back toward the Overlook," said Muñoz, a sign that the commissioners understand the symbolic potential of linking the museum to a larger, progressive civic agenda. But if the Forrestal Building can be removed or opened up, why settle for Arts and Industries when suddenly the Overlook is the hot spot in town?

The other site that doesn't require major new construction is the Whitten Building, the mammoth neoclassical Federal office building that houses the Department of Agriculture. Built between 1905 and 1930, it is the only federal department located directly on the Mall, a historical anomaly. Turning it into a museum makes a lot of sense: It sits in one of the highest- trafficked tourist spots on the Mall, near the Freer Gallery, the Holocaust Museum and the Washington Monument.

The downside is that the architecture may be seen as old-fashioned and not particularly suitable to a Latino museum.

"Could you take a building like the Whitten Building and do something to it that said, in this year, in this century, this important building was established as a Latino museum?" Muñoz asked. Signs and landscaping would help -- though the commission is considering larger architectural changes to the structure. But the question misses a more important point: The passion for building architecturally bold museums from the ground up has led to a lot of awful museums. And a museum is not about its shell. It's about scholarship, world-class exhibits and an ambitious educational agenda.

Unfortunately, a point system created by the museum commission rates these two sites less favorably than two options that should be immediately dropped from consideration. One is at the base of the U.S. Capitol, on the north side of the Mall. The National Museum of African American History and Culture tried for that spot as well and, luckily, failed to get Congress's approval for it. The other is known as the Monument location, directly opposite the African American museum site, on the south side of Mall, where it would obstruct one of the great vistas of the Washington Monument and eat up yet more green space. Given that the Commemorative Works Act of 2003 restricts new museum construction there, the commission may be persuaded not to pursue that option.

The drive to build minority-based museums is fed by both a sense of grievance -- that the American story hasn't been adequately told -- and pride. The former sentiment gives powerful force to the symbolic location of the museum, and it would not be surprising if the commission insisted on the Capitol site or the Monument site simply to assert the importance of the Latino community in a country that has often treated it shabbily.

But pride is a more positive force, and given the growing power of Latinos in American culture and politics, this pride should be harnessed to a progressive vision. Why demand symbolically contested land as a form of redress when the museum could, instead, drive the redevelopment of a part of Washington that will, inevitably, be one of the finest streets in the nation's capital? This means thinking big, and long-term. But the symbolism of that is certainly better representative of the Latino community's contribution to American society than recourse to a divisive contest for land that should forevermore remain green and unspoiled.

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