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

The Smithsonian Institution’s administration building, known as the Castle. Congress has authorized the creation of two new museums to be created by the quasi-federal cultural agency. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The 5,500-page spending and relief bill that Congress passed Monday night includes the authorization of two Smithsonian museums — one focused on American Latinos, the other on American women — that pave the way for the world’s largest museum complex to become even more diverse.

The omnibus bill calls on the Smithsonian to begin the lengthy process of creating the National Museum of the American Latino and the American Women’s History Museum by giving the quasi-federal institution permission to hire staff members, collect objects and present programs aimed at telling the stories unique to the groups.

The proposed museums would be the first new Smithsonian facilities since the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in 2016. Like that $540 million project, the new museums would be financed with 50 percent federal funding and 50 percent private donations. It took more than eight years from President George W. Bush’s signing of the bill creating NMAAHC for the Smithsonian and Congress to agree on its site near the Washington Monument and its building design; it was an additional four-plus years from groundbreaking on Feb. 22, 2012, to its star-studded opening Sept. 24, 2016.

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Advocates have been pressing for a Latino museum since the Smithsonian issued a report in 1994 critical of its treatment of American Hispanics. The push for the American Women’s History Museum dates to 2016, when a bipartisan congressional commission called for its establishment.

“For too long, women’s stories have been left out of the telling of our nation’s history, but with this vote, we begin to rectify that,” Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), the primary sponsor of the House bill on the women’s history museum, said in a statement to The Washington Post. “Americans of all ages deserve to see and be inspired by the remarkable women who helped shape this nation. Seeing role models doing the thing to which we aspire can change the course of someone’s life. How fitting that we pass this bill as we mark the centennial of the 19th Amendment and in the year in which we elected our first woman vice president.”

Supporters of the Latino museum also reflected on the long journey.

“It’s one of those days when you feel the presence of others who have been a part of a movement for so many years,” said Henry R. Muñoz III, who chaired the congressional commission studying a potential Latino museum. “Not just the people who believe there should be a national Latino museum, but the veterans, the artists, the scientists, all the people who have created a Latino imprint on this country. I’m very emotional, for myself and my community.”

Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of NMAAHC, voiced his support for the projects at a Nov. 17 Senate Rules Committee hearing and again after the committee unanimously passed both museum bills on Dec. 3.

“Creating new museums is challenging, but, with appropriate funding, the Smithsonian has the skill and expertise to do it right. We can, and have, created museums that meet the needs of the nation and showcase the U.S. to the world,” Bunch said on Dec. 3.

Last week, at a public meeting of the Smithsonian Board of Regents, Bunch said he was “very enthusiastic” about the potential projects.

“The Smithsonian will make America proud by embracing the more diverse stories that these museums will tell,” he said, adding that the Smithsonian remains committed to its Latino Center and American Women’s History Initiative, two programs dedicated to increasing exhibitions and collections focused on these groups.

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Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who has supported the Latino museum since he was a House member in 2003, said he looks forward to taking his granddaughters to the museum.

“We have overcome tremendous obstacles and unbelievable hurdles to get to this historic moment, but, as I’ve said before, Latinos are used to overcoming obstacles,” Menendez said, a lead sponsor of the Latino museum bill. “With this vote, Latinos and Latinas across our nation will finally have their stories, struggles and impact on our country validated by the United States Congress.”

The bill states it is the “intent of Congress” for the museums to be located on or near the Mall. Sites to be considered for the women’s history museum include the area on the southern side of the Mall and bordered by 14th Street and Jefferson Drive SW, and another on the northwestern portion of the Mall, the U.S. Capitol site, bordered by Third Street, Constitution Avenue, First Street and Pennsylvania Avenue.

Sites suggested for the Latino museum include those two plus the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building, a historic structure next to the institution’s iconic administration building, known as the Castle, and an area on the southwestern edge of the Mall bordered by 12th and 14th streets and Jefferson Drive and Independence Avenue SW.

The proposed museums would build on the work of the Smithsonian Latino Center and the American Women’s History Initiative, “Because of Her Story.” Founded in 1997, the SLC is the force behind the Molina Family Latino Gallery, a 4,500-square-foot exhibition space expected to open in 2022 in the National Museum of American History.

“We’ve done a lot of work and I think we’ve done it in the right way,” Muñoz said, noting the groundwork of the SLC. “We’ve been making sure our presence is felt in exhibitions, in collections. It’s a testament to the many people 20 and 30 years ago who not only argued with the Smithsonian, but collaborated with the Smithsonian.”

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Since it was launched in 2018, the women’s history initiative has produced several exhibitions, hired six curators, started a paid internship program and published its first book.

The House passed the women’s history museum bill in February and the Latino museum bill in July, and both were approved unanimously by the Senate Rules Committee on Dec. 3. Menendez and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), a sponsor of the women’s history museum bill, tried to get unanimous consent from the Senate on Dec. 10, but Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah thwarted their plans.

Lee described his objection as “a matter of national unity and cultural inclusion.”

“There is no us and them. There is only us,” he said of the proposed Latino museum. The museum, he said, “does not celebrate diversity, it weaponizes diversity.”

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