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Senate panel backs creating Smithsonian women's and Latino museums

The Smithsonian may be adding two more museums, as a Senate committee has backed museums dedicated to American Latino and women's history

STARS AND STRIPES

By PEGGY MCGLONE | The Washington Post | Published: December 4, 2020

WASHINGTON — After years of commissions, reports and hearings, two proposed museums dedicated to American Latino and women's history moved a step closer to reality Thursday, when a key Senate committee voted unanimously to approve them.

"This is a big day," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.,a member of the Senate Rules Committee and a co-sponsor of the bills that authorize the Smithsonian Institution to create the National Museum of the American Latino and the American Women's History Museum.

Klobuchar predicted that she and her committee colleagues would remember the vote when the museums open.

"These museums are critical to expanding our understanding of Latino and women's history," she said.

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., whose advocacy for a Latino museum dates to 2003, when he was a House member, said the committee's unanimous support of the previously passed House bill puts a Latino museum within reach.

"This is an extraordinary day in the long march toward the realization of the American Latino museum as part of our national fabric, as part of the long history of this country, a history that preceded this country," Menendez said Thursday.

With dozens of bipartisan co-sponsors, the bills could be taken up soon by the full Senate. The House version of the bill establishing the women's history museum was approved in February; the American Latino Museum Act was passed in July.

"I will be looking at every possible way to make that happen," Menendez said.

The proposed museums would be the first new Smithsonians since the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in 2016. Like that museum, the new museums would be financed with 50 percent federal funding and 50 percent private donations. The bills charge the Smithsonian's Board of Regents with identifying the sites for the museums within two years.

Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch III offered his support for the museums.

"We are watching this important step in the process closely and will follow the guidance of Congress," Bunch said in a statement Thursday that echoed his comments at the committee's Nov. 17 hearing on the proposed museums. "Creating new museums is challenging, but, with appropriate funding, the Smithsonian has the skill and expertise to do it right. We can, and have, created museums that meet the needs of the nation and showcase the U.S. to the world."

If approved, the legislation would allow the museums to collect artifacts related to their missions, create exhibitions and programs, including educational efforts, and collaborate with other Smithsonian facilities. Both bills also include language "ensuring diversity of political viewpoints."

Advocates have been pushing for an American Latino museum since 1994, when the Smithsonian released a report, "Willful Neglect," outlining its failures to promote the history and culture of Hispanic Americans. The report, which called for a stand-alone museum, led to the creation of the Smithsonian Latino Center in 1997.

In 2003, Congress established a commission to study the creation of a museum, a step that launched the earlier African American and American Indian museums. Legislators have introduced bills establishing a Latino museum in every Congress since 2011. Thursday's vote was the first major Senate action in a decade.

"These two museums would provide a place where visitors can see, learn and gain a greater appreciation for the role that women and Latinos have played in shaping the nation we are today," Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the committee chairman, said before the vote.

In 2014, Congress created a bipartisan commission to study a women's history museum. That panel released a report in 2016, prompting Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., to introduce her first bill based on the commission's findings.

Maloney said she is optimistic that the Senate will finish the job.

"I hope we can come together to finally pass this historic legislation before the end of the Congress, and begin the work to create a museum that tells a more comprehensive story of our nation's history and the extraordinary women who helped shape it," Maloney said in a statement to The Washington Post. "This endeavor has been many years in the making. It is time to move it forward to passage."

Even if the legislation is passed by the Senate and signed into law this year, there is a lot of work still to do, Menendez noted.

"Then we begin a new journey," the senator said. "It's going to take another decade to make it a reality."