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Smithsonian picks four potential spots for women’s and Latino museums

The historic Arts and Industries Building and three undeveloped plots on the Mall are in contention, and two will be selected by the end of the year

The Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building is one of the potential locations for the new Latino museum or women’s history museum. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

The Smithsonian has narrowed its search for the sites of the planned National Museum of the American Latino and Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum to four spots on the National Mall.

The historical Arts and Industries Building, on Jefferson Drive SW next to the Smithsonian administration building known as the Castle, is the sole site with a structure and the only one under the control of the Smithsonian.

The three other options are undeveloped land: the Northwest Capitol site, located on the eastern side of the Mall north of the Capitol Reflecting Pool; the South Monument site, on Jefferson Drive SW, across the Mall from the National Museum of African American History and Culture; and the Tidal Basin site, home to a rugby field and bordered by Raoul Wallenberg Place SW and Maine Avenue SW.

The U.S. Capitol has jurisdiction over the Northwest Capitol site, and the others are controlled by the National Park Service. The Arts and Industries Building was considered for the African American Museum.

Their proximity to the Mall led to their selection, Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III said.

“Thinking about the African American Museum, I understood the power of having sites on or near the Mall,” said Bunch, the museum’s founding director. “It wasn’t my endgame. The process led us to this moment, but I understand the power of that symbolism.”

In December 2020, Congress authorized the Smithsonian to create the two museums, and it set a two-year deadline for the selection of their locations. The institution hired the Baltimore design firm Ayers Saint Gross to analyze the sites based on six criteria: the symbolism of the location, existing site conditions, access to transportation, environmental factors, cost and the challenges of acquiring the site. The firm began with more than two dozen possibilities; the Smithsonian revealed at a public hearing in March that it had narrowed the options to 14.

Congress authorizes Smithsonian museums focused on American Latinos and women’s history

Officials will continue to evaluate the four finalists while consulting with members of Congress, the National Capital Planning Commission, the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts and the Architect of the Capitol, as required by the authorizing legislation. The Smithsonian Board of Regents is expected to meet Congress’s deadline by choosing two sites before the end of the year.

“There’s no perfect site,” Bunch said, noting that the ongoing analysis will reveal the trade-offs that each site presents. Officials will have to weigh each site’s size and design challenges and the obstacles to acquiring the land. The Arts and Industries Building will need to be studied for how it can be reimagined as a 21st-century museum, he said.

Latino Museum backers are pushing for a prime spot on the National Mall

Advocates for the museums have pushed for them to be built on the Mall, considered by many to be the nation’s front lawn. The two newest Smithsonians, the African American Museum, which opened in 2016, and the National Museum of the American Indian, which opened in 2004, sit on opposite ends of this symbolic space.

Finding a place for each new museum is more difficult now because the open space on or near the Mall is limited, Bunch said, and finding two at the same time is even more challenging.

“It’s kind of like having kids. You have two kids, it’s not just twice the work,” Bunch said. “You want to make sure each museum feels they have been given the respect, the attention, the visibility they deserve.”

The announcement from the Board of Regents comes days after the opening of the Molina Family Latino Gallery in the National Museum of American History. As the precursor to the Latino Museum, the gallery will host exhibits and programs until the museum opens.

The Smithsonian has assembled advisory boards for both museums. Jorge Zamanillo was hired as the founding director of the Latino Museum earlier this year. Officials are interviewing candidates for director of the women’s history museum.

Zamanillo said he was excited about all of the options.

“Whichever is selected, I am sure we’ll build a significant, amazing museum,” he said. “But what I’m more impressed with is how thorough and transparent the process was. We briefed everyone, met with people in the community, with national and local leaders from Latino organizations. To me, that’s the best thing that has come out of this.”