The New York Times: Congress Approves New Museums Honoring Women and Latinos

Dec 21, 2020
In The News

After decades-long campaigns, a National Museum of the American Latino and a national museum of women’s history are finally on their way to becoming reality in Washington.

Both houses of Congress have voted to authorize the creation of the two museums as part of a $2.3-trillion year-end spending bill that legislators worked over the weekend to hammer out.

“A museum that highlights the contributions of Latinos and Latinas to our nation at a time when the pandemic has so disproportionately impacted our communities seems very fitting,” Estuardo Rodríguez, the president and chief executive of the nonprofit Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino, said. “We are eager to see the bill pass.”

One of the lead sponsors of the effort to create a women’s museum, U.S. Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, said Monday, “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.” Ms. Maloney, Democrat of New York, added, “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.”

Both museums are expected to sit on or near the National Mall, though there has been some debate about whether the Mall, home to many of the nation’s iconic monuments and institutions, is too crowded to accommodate additional construction.

The move comes 10 days after the objections of a single senator out of 100, Mike Lee, Republican of Utah, prevented the passage of both measures. Because his colleagues were attempting to pass the bill by unanimous consent, a procedure to expedite legislation that is limited to noncontroversial measures, his reservations alone were enough to block it.

“My objection to the creation of a new Smithsonian museum or series of museums based on group identity — what Theodore Roosevelt called hyphenated Americanism — is not a matter of budgetary or legislative technicalities,” Mr. Lee said at the time. “It’s a matter of national unity and cultural inclusion.”

The unexpected failure of the museum bills sparked debate in Congress over the role of ethnic and gender identity in American life and how museums should serve American culture. Senators John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, and Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, spoke in favor of the Latino museum, which they argued afforded representation and recognition to the history and achievements of 60 million Americans. But Mr. Lee argued that the museums would only further divide the country, and that the history of Latinos and women should be part of existing Smithsonian museums.

The vote to approve the museums follows years of studies and commissions. Supporters scored a tangible victory earlier this year when the House approved bipartisan bills authorizing the establishment of the museums under the Smithsonian umbrella, both by overwhelming margins.

The campaign to set up a Latino museum began in 1994 after a report found that the Smithsonian “displays a pattern of willful neglect” toward the country’s Latinos, who made up 18 percent of the U.S. population in 2017, according to the Pew Research Center. In response, the museum established a Smithsonian Latino Center in 1997, and in 2008 Congress authorized a commission to study the issue that ultimately recommended the creation of a 310,000-square-foot museum on the National Mall.

The women’s history museum has faced similar hurdles. Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, was one of three senators who introduced a bill to create it in 2003, but it was not until 2014 that a congressional commission recommended building an American Museum of Women’s History at a prominent location in Washington.

But even after both museums are given the green light, it is still likely to be another decade before they open. Lawmakers have yet to allocate funds for both the physical buildings and the acquisition of objects for their collections. In the case of the Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016, it took 13 years from the time the legislation establishing that museum was passed in 2003 for it to open.

Legislators who expressed concern in the past about proposals to create the museums said the Smithsonian should focus on improving its existing museums. The congressional report had estimated that the Latino museum would cost $600 million, and the Congressional Budget Office estimated last year that a 350,000-square-foot women’s history museum would cost $375 million.

The 400,000-square-foot African American Museum, which cost $540 million, was funded through a 50-50 partnership, in which the government provided half the money needed for its design and construction, and the other half was raised through private donations. Both the new museums would be expected to use the same financial model.

Henry R. Muñoz III, the former chairman of the Smithsonian Latino Center who has long championed the creation of a Latino museum, said the vote represents a step forward for the nation. “For members of Congress to say we will move forward as we’re emerging out of a very contentious period when Latinos are told they don’t even belong here — ‘go home’ — is not lost on me,” he said.

“I hope I’m around long enough to see it,” Mr. Muñoz, 61, added. “I don’t think it has to take decades.”