There’s a movement underway to add a new National Museum of the American Latino to the Smithsonian system. The NMAL would be one of several Smithsonian museums focused on the experiences of particular ethnic groups, alongside the National Museum of the American Indian and the National Museum of African American History and Culture (slated to open in 2015). There’s also been some recent activity in an effort to put a women’s history museum on the National Mall, so we could be seeing quite a few new D.C. museums focused on the history of various minority groups in the coming years.
I’ve always been of the opinion that you can’t have too many museums. Going to museums is one of my favorite things to do, so every new facility means something else I’ll get to enjoy visiting.
At the same time, though, part of me worries that these new museums might lead to some unintentional “re-segregation” of public history. The National Museum of American History is a popular destination, and “American history” is a subject broad enough to appeal to a lot of people. Trying to encompass everybody’s history under one roof has its disadvantages; you don’t get as many chances to cover minority-related subjects. But when a general museum does mount an exhibit on the history of a minority group, it exposes visitors of a variety of backgrounds to the material, even visitors who wouldn’t normally visit a museum focused solely on minority history. How many people who weren’t necessarily interested in twentieth-century black history got to experience the NMAH’s highly successful “Field to Factory” exhibit on the Great Migration? Indeed, one wonders how many thousands of people have been exposed to specialized aspects of history at the NMAH just because they came to see the Star-Spangled Banner and then decided to explore the other exhibits.
I should point out that I’m not saying your average white visitor to the Smithsonian is a closet racist who will consciously avoid a black or Latino history museum. I’m just saying that it might not occur to them that such a museum would be of interest. The problem I’m concerned about here is visitor apathy, not hostility. White Americans shouldn’t think of black or Latino history as “somebody else’s” history, but as critical components of American history as a whole.
And I definitely don’t want to give the impression that I think the construction of any of these museums would be a bad thing. I just hope white visitors to D.C. don’t assume the new museums are irrelevant to them and miss out on all they have to offer.
On the other hand, maybe the addition of new museums focused on minority history will have the opposite effect. Maybe a lot of white visitors to the Smithsonian will pay their first visit to a black history museum when the NMAAHC opens, since the new building will be right there on the Mall, in a location frequented by tourists who are passionate about their country’s past.