By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 18, 2010; E03
The Juggernaut of Museum Politics is moving again, straight toward the Mall. This time it's a proposal for a National Museum of the American Latino, and the momentum is coming from a commission created by law in 2008. The 23-member panel is studying the feasibility of a museum in Washington to celebrate "the art, history and culture of the Latino population of the United States."
The commission made its first formal presentation to the National Capital Planning Commission on July 1, sharing with the planning oversight group a shortlist of possible sites for the museum. The NCPC will respond in August, and the museum commission will report back to Congress in September.
But things are moving fast, even at this preliminary stage. In April, there were nine possible locations on the list, according to Henry R. Muñoz III, a San Antonio-based designer and entrepreneur who is the commission chair. Now the shortlist is down to four.
And they are all on or adjacent to the Mall. Anyone who cherishes the thought that the Mall is "a substantially completed work of civic art" -- the phrase was used by Congress in 2003 in legislation meant to limit new construction -- will find little comfort in the current course of events. There is always a loophole, especially if an interest group is powerful enough to lobby Congress. Witness the appalling plan to construct an unnecessary visitors center for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, one of the most shameless land grabs in the history of the deeply contested Mall.
Washingtonians need not look to the Fenty administration, either, for much comfort. The District's Office of Planning bounced questions about the new museum over to the mayor's office, whose spokesperson e-mailed this: "The District hasn't taken an official position."
The official site selection process won't begin until after Congress considers the commission's report. But now is not the time to go all Bambi in the headlights. Museum commissions are a force of nature, and the District needs to be engaged early and consistently with steering the decision. There's little time for anyone worried about the rapid consumption of open space on the Mall to have a say. And the political climate isn't favorable to deliberation, either.
Judy Scott Feldman of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall speculates that the commission is moving quickly "to get a site before the fall elections." Muñoz, who spoke candidly about all the sites on the shortlist, agrees that there's a sense of urgency. "This moment in our country's history really requires us to be aggressive in moving the notion of this museum forward," he said.
Fortunately, there are some good options that will serve everyone's interests. Two of the four sites might not require significant new construction on the Mall, and one of those two could give a significant boost to the District's plans to redevelop the L'Enfant Promenade, a forgotten spur of 10th Street SW that could become one of the finest addresses in the downtown core.
But the best option would be to reconsider a location known as the "Overlook site," which fell off the shortlist unnecessarily. It sits at the end of the L'Enfant Promenade near a dilapidated fountain known as Banneker Park Circle. It is a plum spot, with commanding views of the waterfront. As Thomas Luebke, secretary of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, points out, the Overlook is only five blocks from the Smithsonian Castle, and as plans for redeveloping this area go forward, it will be a major nodal point connecting the Mall and the Washington waterfront.
"It has enormous potential as a flagship site that can accommodate a very significant cultural institution," said Luebke, whose panel will also weigh in on the site selection.
It takes vision to see that now. But if the city can persuade the federal government to allow the redevelopment of the Forrestal Building -- an ugly structure that houses the Department of Energy and discourages people from using the L'Enfant Promenade -- the Overlook site will suddenly be some of Washington's most attractive real estate. Remove or reconfigure the building -- which stands athwart 10th Street and blocks views of the Smithsonian Castle -- and the Mall suddenly has a new arm, reaching out to the river, with the Overlook site at its terminus. If the commissioners of the Latino museum dream big, they would snap up this spot.
There are also two decent options among the four on the list. One possibility is to use the now-vacant Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building, with a newly constructed annex. The ideal spot for that annex would be across Independence Avenue, which would be preferable to an annex built under the Mall. (Underground buildings generally require intrusive above-ground entrances and emergency exits). But like the Overlook site, this option would require redevelopment of the Forrestal building -- which won't be quick or easy.
"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.