As part of its $2.3 trillion year-end spending bill, which passed in both chambers late on Monday, Congress has authorized the creation of two new national museums that will be overseen by the Smithsonian Institution: the National Museum of the American Latino and the American Women’s History Museum.
The passing of the legislation gives the two institutions the green light to begin hiring staff, collecting objects, and hosting programming related to their respective missions. The bill also calls for them to be located on or near the National Mall, where many of the Smithsonian’s other museums in the nation’s capital are located. As with previously legislated museums, they will be financed equally between federal funding and private donations.
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Earlier this month, the creation of both museums had been blocked by a single senator, Mike Lee (Republican of Utah), who objected to the two museums as “a matter of national unity and cultural inclusion.” Having already cleared in the House of Representatives, Congress was attempting to pass the bill related to both museums by unanimous vote, to expedite the process; his single “no” vote was enough to prevent the legislation from passing.
In a statement, Senator Robert Menendez (Democratic of New Jersey) and one of the main sponsors of the American Latino museum said, “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…. 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 two museums will be the latest to open under the Smithsonian’s umbrella, which includes 19 museums and 9 research centers, as well as several affiliate institutions across the country. The most recent addition to the system prior to this new legislation was the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016 in a David Adjaye–designed building on the Mall to mass acclaim.
Supporters of the National Museum of the American Latino have called for its creation for over 25 years, since the Smithsonian published its landmark 1994 report “Willful Neglect: The Smithsonian Institution and U.S. Latinos,” which found that the contributions of U.S. Latinos were grossly underrepresented throughout the national collection.
That report led to the creation of the Smithsonian Latino Center, which has helped recruit and support the creation of curatorial positions for Latinx art and history experts across the Smithsonian, including at the National Portrait Gallery, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Archives of American Art, and the Cooper Hewitt, among others.
The American Women’s History Museum has been in the works since 2016 as part of a bipartisan congressional commission formed to study its creation. That eventually led to the creation of American Women’s History Initiative two years later, which has hired six curators and mounted several exhibitions.
In a statement to the Washington Post, Representative Carolyn B. Maloney (Democrat of New York) said, “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. 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.”