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Smithsonian’s Latino gallery makes big gains for accessibility

The first permanent Latino exhibition on the Mall represents a milestone for the Smithsonian by embedding technology that engages visitors with physical, sensory and cognitive conditions

Parts of the “¡Presente! A Latino History of the United States” exhibition are seen in the Molina Family Latino Gallery at the National Museum of American History. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)
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The refugee boat is a gut punch. Tucked in an alcove of the Molina Family Latino Gallery, the homemade raft carried two Cuban refugees, known as balseros, who risked their lives in 1992 in a harrowing water escape from Cuba’s economic crisis. Picturing the makeshift vessel on the open ocean is emotional, and it forces viewers to confront the courage and desperation of thousands of refugees.

The boat sits in front of footage of a roiling ocean, the sound of waves coming from a directional speaker overhead. Visitors who press a button built into the display can smell the sea air, and those who connect to the gallery’s enhanced technology through a QR code can access labels and wall text describing it.

A highlight of the exhibition “¡Presente! A Latino History of the United States,” which opens Saturday in the National Museum of American History, the display provides an immersive experience for visitors of all abilities, including those with disabilities. Part of the most accessible gallery on the vast Smithsonian campus, it represents a milestone for the institution’s commitment to all audiences.

“We made an early decision to make the gallery as accessible as possible. We felt it was the right thing to do,” said Eduardo Díaz, acting deputy director of the National Museum of the American Latino. “The ‘aha’ moment was that it made it better for everyone.”

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The 4,500-square-foot gallery will be the first permanent space on the National Mall dedicated to American Latinos, a growing segment of the nation’s population. The gallery is the precursor to the National Museum of the American Latino, which Congress authorized in 2020 (along with the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum). Smithsonian officials must select the sites for the two museums by the end of the year, and their design and construction are expected to take at least a decade. The Molina Family Latino Gallery, on the first floor of the three-story National Museum of American History, will host the Latino museum’s exhibitions until its permanent home opens.

The gallery’s improved accessibility is a response to the country’s changing demographics and increased focus on diversity. As many as 1 in 4 adults in the United States have some form of disability, according to federal data. The Latino community has a higher percentage of disabled individuals than the overall population, making accessibility even more vital. The aging American population is another factor; the Smithsonian wants to offer the best experience it can for elderly guests and the multigenerational families that regularly visit, officials said.

“People with disabilities want to feel welcome rather than tolerated,” said Janice Majewski, director of Inclusive Cultural and Educational Projects at the Institute for Human Centered Design, an organization contracted by the Smithsonian to work on the gallery design. “This is saying to the walk-in visitor, ‘Welcome. We really want you to be here.’ ”

The national drive for increased diversity and inclusion that has swept the nation in recent years also influenced the design, said Beth Ziebarth, director of Access Smithsonian. New exhibitions at the National Air and Space Museum, expected to open in late fall, will build on the inclusive efforts of the Latino exhibit.

“If you don’t address access, you don’t provide inclusion. People with disabilities are part of diversity. They cross boundaries,” Ziebarth said.

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The exhibition focuses on the people, historical moments and key concepts that illustrate the legacies of American Latinos and Latinas. All of the material — the text, closed captions and audio descriptions — are provided in English and Spanish.

Designers chose a color scheme and print font that is highly legible, and a physical layout that is easy to navigate. Sections that cover colonial legacies, U.S. expansion and immigration stories unfold along its perimeter. Thirteen QR codes are spread throughout, connecting a blind or low-vision visitor’s smartphone and its text-to-audio software to the display text. The codes provide the thematic introductions to the sections and descriptions of the major pieces in each case. The system also offers information about the layout of the gallery, and where the next code is located.

The exhibition’s many digital pieces are also accessible through a keypad. The dozen oral histories in El Foro (the Forum), for example, feature familiar figures such as journalist Maria Hinojosa and others who are less famous, such as Ruby Corado, founder of Casa Ruby, a bilingual LGBTQ community center in Washington, and Nefertiti Matos, a cultural accessibility consultant who is blind. The keypads allow everyone to manipulate these digital exhibits.

Another major digital experience displays visual interpretations of demographic data, including trends in religion, higher education and language. The interactive technology allows visitors to explore the data and to learn, for example, the percentage of people of Latin American ancestry who identify as Hispanic, Latino or Latinx.

Ziebarth encourages sighted visitors to try the added technology, saying the audio adds a valuable layer of information.

“It gets you to focus on an object the way the curator wants you to,” she said.

A station at the gallery’s entrance explains how to use the accessible technology. The keypads, which require wired headsets that must be plugged in at each stop, mirror the technology found at ATMs and airport kiosks, Ziebarth said, and visitors who are blind or who have low vision are familiar with it. A coordinator will be in the gallery Wednesdays through Sundays to assist visitors who need help connecting to the system; staff will provide inexpensive wired headsets to visitors who might not have them.

The keypad technology does not offer a wireless option, Ziebarth said, a fact that reveals the balancing act of work with the various levels of technology available to guests. Some smartphones and hearing aids are Bluetooth-compatible, but many are not.

Tactile and olfactory experiences — including the smell of coffee at a dominoes table — enhance the visual displays, which also feature historical and contemporary biographies, including Mexican American union leader Cesar Chavez, Puerto Rican baseball player Roberto Clemente and Cuban American singer Celia Cruz.

As the debut exhibition, “¡Presente!” offers a taste of what the future museum will contribute to existing Smithsonian content. It will also serve as a laboratory.

“You look at all the history, the art, the music, all the culture. It strengthens the idea that even with so many differences, we have so much in common,” said museum director Jorge Zamanillo, whose tenure started last month.

“It is the foundational experience of the museum,” Zamanillo said, adding that he and his future staff will use the space to test content, ideas and technology. “It’s a big incubator. Imagine what we can do in 10 years.”

¡Presente! A Latino History of the United States opens Saturday at the National Museum of American History, Constitution Avenue between 12th and 14th streets NW.

Peter Wallsten contributed to this report.