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How can the American Latino Museum best answer the call of the Mall?

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 25, 2010; E06

The pisco sours were flowing, the crowds were grazing on seviche and a Peruvian band was playing. And through the windows of the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, the dome of the Capitol was glowing in the background. When the giant atrium is filled with revelers at an after-hours gathering, the museum comes alive.

But come back on a weekday morning and it's the very picture of serenity. All of three people were hanging out in the large circle beneath the museum's signature dome one day last week, with slow traffic through the exhibitions on the third and fourth floors.

Since the Indian museum 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.

And the last thing the Smithsonian needs is another museum competing for limited resources under its management. It's not clear if the Latino museum will become part of the Smithsonian or opt for independent status, such as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The Smithsonian would give the new museum instant brand recognition. But the Smithsonian isn't infinitely expandable. Congress has proven more willing to enlarge the institution's obligations than to increase its budget.

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.

Kevin Gover, who in 2007 became the Indian museum's second director, is well aware of the problems. He believes the attendance numbers are stabilizing, but he is also leading what may amount to a major overhaul of the exhibition space.

"We want to give the visitors more of what they want," he says. "They are information people and they want to know more. They want it presented as a more cogent narrative."

He also plans to do more events such as the Peruvian festival, which was sponsored by the Peruvian government. "I think where we can distinguish ourselves within the Smithsonian is with our live cultural programming," he says. "We're trying to expand that even without extra money to do it."

There's huge potential and danger in this approach, which relies on outside funding. The museum could define itself as a performance venue and build an audience for a kind of semipermanent Folklife Festival under its roof. But it could easily become a venue for cultural advertising if it doesn't strictly curate what outside groups bring in.

Gover's idea for a more cogent narrative sounds like he is planning to take the museum in the direction of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is gathering a collection geared toward a narrative-driven museology. (It will be housed in a new building near the Washington Monument.)

That would be an improvement on the current approach, but it's not necessarily forward-thinking. Americans are awash in narratives, and if a museum focuses too much on narrative -- rather than methodical teaching, engagement with objects and must-see temporary exhibitions -- it becomes a one-off cultural experience for visitors eager to move on to the next thing.

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."

That's a strange world in which to start building a museum to celebrate Latinos, especially given how problematic ethnically focused museums are. There's resistance to them 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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