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New gallery will be first in a Smithsonian museum to focus on U.S. Latino experience

An artist’s rendering of part of the Molina Family Latino Gallery. (Museum Environments/Branded Environments)

The Smithsonian announced Thursday that it will open its first gallery focused on the U.S. Latino experience, in the National Museum of American History.

Opening in 2021 on the museum’s first floor, the Molina Family Latino Gallery will feature bilingual exhibits exploring the history and contributions of American Latinos. A $10 million gift from the five children of the late California physician and entrepreneur C. David Molina is funding the 4,500-square-foot space.

The permanent gallery has been a long-term goal of the Smithsonian Latino Center, which was founded in 1997 to work with the institution’s other museums and research centers to recognize Latino contributions. With nine staff members, the center supports professional development and education programs for Latino youths, scholars and museum professionals; funds exhibitions and education programs; and creates Web-based content.

‘The Smithsonian can do more and should do more’ says advocate for Latino museum

Advocates supporting a stand-alone Latino museum welcomed the announcement, saying it represents significant progress in their effort.

“It’s wonderful. This is exactly the road the African American Museum took. They also had a gallery in the American History Museum,” said Estuardo Rodriguez, executive director of the advocacy group Friends of the American Latino Museum. “We run on parallel tracks, and we will point to that in our efforts to fundraise and to pass legislation for [a museum].”

The Smithsonian does not back the creation of a new museum, but there is growing support in Congress for a Smithsonian Latino museum, and members greeted the news of the new gallery with optimism.

“I applaud the Smithsonian’s efforts to create a space to honor and display the rich contributions that Latinos and Latinas have made to this country since its very inception,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who introduced legislation last year to create a museum, said in an email. “I am convinced now, more than ever, that the Smithsonian Institution has the capacity to fill an entire state-of-the-art museum dedicated to the American Latino in the near future. This is a great first step.”

Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.) said the gallery and the donors behind it prove “there is an appetite to showcase the uniqueness of the American Latino experience and strong funding opportunities to make it a reality.”

At a ceremonial signing of the donor agreement Thursday, Eduardo Díaz, the director of the Smithsonian Latino Center, said the gallery in the American History Museum would allow the center to connect directly with visitors.

“Establishing a dedicated space is no small task, and it isn’t inexpensive,” Díaz said before thanking the members of the Molina family, many of whom attended the event. The five siblings signed the agreement with Smithsonian Secretary David J. Skorton, who said the gallery would help the Smithsonian “do a better job of telling the complete story of America.”

The gallery will honor the donors’ father, Díaz said, but also propel the center’s efforts to educate and inform the world about the Latino experience.

“We will recover the past, engage the present and imagine the future,” Díaz said of the exhibitions.

In addition to the Molina family gift, Target has given $2 million for the space. The gallery will be designed by Museum Environments/Branded Environments and will feature interactive activities, artifacts and first-person narratives.

The inaugural exhibit, tentatively titled “Making Home: Latino Stories of Community and Belonging,” will focus on the contributions of Latinos by showing how they “are anchored in United States history,” said Ranald Woodaman, the center’s exhibitions and public programs director. It will begin in Colonial North America and extend to the present day, he said.

“We want to expand people’s notions of what it means to be Latino,” he said. “It’s not this homogenous experience. It depends on where you’re from. We want to show how we came together under this big label.”