Turning museums into cultural ghettos

Following a federal commission report to the US Congress, it now seems probable that a national museum devoted solely to American Latino history and culture will form part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.

There has been plenty of support for the museum. Senior political and cultural figures, including Eva Longoria from TV’s Desperate Housewives, have all called for the establishment of an institution dedicated to the story of the ‘Latino experience’ – an experience belonging to over 16 per cent of the total US population. ‘For the Latino community, much of our history does not get told’, interior secretary Ken Salazar explained. The final decision as to whether or not the Latino community’s history does get told now rests with Congress.

Although federal money will not be made available for the Latino museum, there’s no doubt that being part of the prestigious Smithsonian Institution would be a major statement of acceptance into the American museum establishment, not to mention the national story.

However, the museum’s potential establishment does raise questions. With any prospective Latino museum set to sit alongside the National Museum of the American Indian and a scheduled African-American museum, the story of the American people will be segregated into separate buildings, each devoted to a particular ethnic category. Is there not a danger that American history is being fragmented into self-contained ghettos?

This is not a particularly new concern. Over the past 30 years, we have seen a Museum of the American Indian established in New York as well as Washington, an Arab American National Museum built in Michigan, and the Contemporary Jewish Museum instituted in San Francisco. There is also Black History Month and a whole raft of outreach and education practices targeting specific ethnic backgrounds.

A big problem with this ghettoising trend is the increased emphasis on ethnic identity, so constructed, as the key to understanding the past. Take, for example, the artist Diego Rivera. As a Mexican who was later to live in the US, he would be ripe for inclusion in the new Latino museum. But would he have considered himself a ‘Latino’ artist?

Rivera’s work was certainly influenced by Mexican folk art. But it was also deeply informed by his engagement with Spanish, French and Italian art and artists. The core of his exchanges with his contemporaries was not Mexican, it was genres and meaning, musings on cubism, post-impressionism and Renaissance frescos. Indeed it was the Renaissance fresco which influenced his murals portraying the experiences of not only Mexican people but, more crucially, an international working-class.

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