What Will the First Exhibit at the New National Museum of the American Latino Look Like?

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Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Latino Center.

After languishing for years in Congress, legislation to create the National Museum of the American Latino finally became a reality on December 27, 2020, and now the team led by Eduardo Diaz, director of the Smithsonian’s Latino Center, has gotten to work.

As reported by Smithsonian Magazine, Diaz and his team have spent the last year creating the center’s first exhibition space: the Molina Family Latino Gallery, which will devote its 4,500 square feet to showcasing centuries of Latino heritage and culture.

Its first exhibit, “¡Presente! A Latino History of the United States,” will be housed in the Gallery, funded largely by the descendants of C. David Molina, and will feature more than 200 objects, including a refugee raft used by those fleeing Communist Cuba.

The exhibit will also showcase a dress of the “Queen of Salsa” Celia Cruz and a Puerto Rican slave registration form. The National Museum of the American Latino’s first show will also include newly commissioned illustrations by such notables as indigenous freedom fighter Toypurina, Mexican-American muralist Judy Baca, Puerto Rican educator Antonia Pantoja and Colombian-American drag queen Julio Sarria. 

The seminal exhibition will be supported by educational and cultural programs as well as a common space to meet and converse.

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A Puerto Rican registration form documents six enslaved individuals, including four children, as the “property of the estate of Don José Anto. Photo courtesy of NMAAHC.

“A lot of the conversation was originally on how we could best use this space. It’s a limited amount of square footage; real estate is so much of a luxury at the Institution,” says Emily Key, the center’s director of education.

Key says her team realized that an in-depth approach to each theme would not ultimately work, and the first curation would be more narratively efficient if it was approached as a more general overview of the U.S. Latino experience.

To this end, the team engaged with stakeholders, who played a critical role in shaping the gallery’s design and approach. These actions were crucial not only to ensure accuracy, but also authenticity.

“If you’re building a museum that is culturally and ethnically specific, you need to have that first voice at the table when you’re creating it to really ground the experience in,” Key says.

With information from Smithsonian Magazine.