Home National museum New exhibit brings visitors closer to the National Museum of the Latin American

New exhibit brings visitors closer to the National Museum of the Latin American


The dreamed of National Latin American Museum probably won’t be finished for at least ten years, but a big step was taken towards its completion when the first exhibit of the future Smithsonian Museum opened as a pop-up on the National Mall in Washington D.C.

This exhibition, a kind of preview, is called ¡Present! A Latin History of the United States. It is housed in the Molina Family Latino Gallery, a 4,500 square foot space inside the National Museum of American History.

Jorge Zamanillo, director of the National Museum of the Latin American, indicates that the placement is intentional. It is meant to show visitors that Latino history is part of American history.

“It’s foundational. It really sets the stage. Kind of like a 101 on the Latin American presence in the United States and how it fits into the larger narrative of American history,” Zamanillo said.

Tony Powell / Molina Family Latino Gallery


Molina Family Latino Gallery

An exhibit at the National Museum of American History’s Molina Family Latino Gallery.

When ¡Present! was in development, Smithsonian curators surveyed visitors about their knowledge of Latin American history to determine what should be front and center in this exhibit. The final show speaks to what many of these visitors did not know, says Ranald Woodmandirector of exhibitions and public programs at the Smithsonian Latino Center.

“Most visitors think Latinos are new to the United States, they see us all as immigrants and as being mostly Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans,” he says.

The small but dynamic exhibition reflects all kinds of Latin American experiences and presents them in English and Spanish. ¡Present! covers four themes: colonial legacies, war and the expansion of the United States, histories of immigration and the formation of the nation.

In one of the galleries, for example, visitors can see a raft: a small boat where Cuban refugees spent several days in 1992 on their way to Florida by sea. In another, an intricate work of art titled Tree of life, by V of Mexican origineronica Castillouses clay to recreate historic moments and themes present throughout the gallery.

Woodaman said he wanted the exhibit, which runs in chronological order, to end in the present — with data-driven stories that show the growing impact of Latinos in the United States. He also wanted to end on a note of affirmation, nodding to how the community breaks down boundaries and shines a light on the stories of people like Sonia Sotomayor, Supreme Court Justice, Cuban-American singer Celia Cruz and Colombian American drag queen and activist José Sarria.

And at the very end of the gallery, there’s a quiet little room with books and board games that feels like a chill-out space to unwind.

“We want people to come to this space and feel welcome, and feel like they can come hang out here on a Saturday or Sunday and play Domingos of Dominoes or come hang out and learn the science behind the spices in our Latino foods,” says Emily Key, who leads public engagement at the museum. “Why does chili taste the way it does? What’s the science behind it?”

Until the National Museum of the American Latino is finally built and opened, in 2024 or later, this gallery marks a milestone: the beginning of the end of a decades-long quest to showcase Latino culture. -American in the American context.

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