Jorge Zamanillo was an 18-year-old college student studying music when a solo trip to Washington — and visits to Smithsonian museums — changed his life.
Zamanillo went home to Miami, changed his major to archaeology and started a career that led him to the top post at the HistoryMiami Museum. And in May, Zamanillo, 52, will return to Washington as the founding director of the National Museum of the American Latino, the Smithsonian announced Friday.
The museum, along with the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum, was authorized by Congress in December 2020. The museums will be the first new Smithsonian venues since the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in 2016.
Building a museum from scratch is a herculean task, but Zamanillo is excited for the opportunity.
“I like building from the ground up, starting with a clean slate,” he said. “You can’t be short-minded. You know you’re not going to see a shovel in the ground for five or six years. You can’t get disillusioned. I’ll be in my 60s when it opens. To me that’s exciting.
“You read [Smithsonian Secretary] Lonnie Bunch’s book on how he created the African American Museum, and just the title alone, ‘A Fool’s Errand,’ you read it and you realize it’s a job that requires someone with passion and stamina.”
Bunch said Zamanillo emerged as the leading candidate because of his deep connection to the Miami community and his firsthand experience across many museum positions.
“I was really struck by the fact that he both spent a lot of time leading an organization, but he also understands the guts of it,” Bunch said. “This is a job about crafting a structure, but it’s more about creating stories and interactions with the community. He’s done that, and that excited me, his work with the community.”
Bunch also cited Zamanillo’s leadership in the museum field. He is president of the Florida Association of Museums and a board member and treasurer of the American Alliance of Museums.
“I want someone who can take the Smithsonian in different directions, who would allow the Smithsonian to have influence beyond its walls,” Bunch said. “He’s got that quiet confidence, that sense that there’s a lot that he knows, but he’s not worried about what he has to learn along the way.”
In the year since the museum’s authorization, the Smithsonian has appointed an advisory board and started the search for its location. In June, the Molina Family Latino Gallery — a precursor to the museum — will open in the National Museum of American History. The Smithsonian declined to disclose Zamanillo’s salary, which will be funded through private sources. He will not be a federal employee.
Zamanillo was born in New York City’s Washington Heights, the youngest of four children of parents who came from Cuba in 1966 through the Freedom Flights. His family moved to Miami in 1976. He graduated from Florida State University in Tallahassee and earned a master’s in museum studies at the University of Leicester in England.
He worked part-time as an educator and visitor services staffer at HistoryMiami when he was in college and then spent a decade as an archaeologist at a nonprofit cultural resource management firm. When Zamanillo realized he wanted to work on exhibitions — “Not just find stuff, but tell stories,” he said — he applied for a curator’s job at HistoryMiami. Since 2016 he has been its chief executive, overseeing a staff of 45 and a $6.2 million annual budget.
Under his leadership, HistoryMiami opened a $45 million expansion that included four new galleries. He also created a Center for Photography to collect and preserve images of South Florida, and expanded Miami Stories, a multimedia program focused on life in the community.
John K. Shubin, chairman of the board of trustees of HistoryMiami, described Zamanillo as a dynamic force.
“Virtually every inch of the museum and its collection contains some part of his heart and soul,” Shubin said. “He has expanded and enhanced our collections and focused new attention on the medium of photography to document our local stories. He expanded our oral history projects and supervised the curation of award-winning exhibitions.”
Zamanillo and his wife, Ann, have an adult daughter. When he moves to Washington, he will shift his focus from Florida to Latino communities across the country.
“My goal is to reach out to Latinos across the nation, to make sure their stories are captured. And once we start sharing [them], you’ll see a lot of commonalities,” he said. “Stories of struggle, assimilation and discrimination, but also celebrating resilience, perseverance and creating a legacy.”
Visitors connect with such emotional stories, Zamanillo said, pointing to the African American Museum as an example.
“It’s an emotional museum, especially that lower level, what enslaved people went through, the early history of Black communities in the United States and their struggles. It’s sad, it’s emotional, it’s powerful,” he said. “You’re angry, you want to make a change, you want to make a difference. That’s what museums should do. They should make you feel different, make you think, challenge your thoughts.
“I believe museums can be transformational,” he said, “but the only way it works is if visitors see themselves in those spaces.”