In 2020, Congress passed the National Museum of the American Latino Act, authorizing the National Museum of the American Latino and the American Latino History and Culture (ALHC) grant program, operated by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). The ALHC program is designed to build and strengthen the capacity of American Latino museums and education organizations across the United States. But it first needs to answer a seemingly simple question: What is an American Latino museum?
Although the question seems relatively straightforward—it's a museum with a focus on American Latino history, culture, or art—in reality, every part of that answer needs to be unpacked. What is a museum? What does it mean to focus on something? What does American Latino history, culture, and art include, and how should we think about it?
The Urban Institute recently completed a project to answer these questions and inform IMLS as it sets up the ALHC program. We found American Latino museums tend to be smaller, younger, and more likely to have nontraditional institutional models. This diversity makes federal support valuable for building the field, but it also presents challenges for connecting these museums to funders and grantmaking opportunities.
Who are American Latinos?
Before defining a museum or its purpose, a more foundational question must be answered: Who does “American Latino” include? Our study has used the term “Latino” because the sponsoring legislation of the ALHC program uses the term, and it’s intended to reference all diverse people of Spanish and Latin American origin. But even this definition is complicated, and the federal government has struggled to define inclusion.
If the definition is based on the Spanish language, those who speak Portuguese (such as those with Brazilian connections), French (such as those with connections to Haiti), or Indigenous languages, as well as those with Dutch-Caribbean origins (such as Aruba or Curaçao) are excluded. People we spoke to with connections to museums that had a focus on Brazilian and Haitian culture expressed that they were part of American Latino culture and that American Latino culture was part of their identity. As a result, IMLS will want to think broadly about who it includes to ensure grantees reflect the diversity and intersectionalities of the American Latino museum field.
What is a museum?
The IMLS defines a museum as an institution that: “using a professional staff, is organized on a permanent basis for essentially educational or aesthetic purposes; owns or uses tangible objects, either animate or inanimate; cares for these objects; and exhibits these objects to the general public on a regular basis through facilities that it owns or operates.”
For American Latino museums, this definition provides a framework for the many institutions in the process of becoming museums. These institutions are setting up collections, thinking about curation, organizing exhibitions and educational programming, doing community engagement, and partnering with other local institutions on a range of initiatives. As one interviewee noted, American Latino museums that started as cultural institutions are working to figure out how to evolve as a “museum”:
We are seeing more… organizations that maybe started as performing arts organizations, starting to be active in becoming stewards to material culture, but you know they're not coming from necessarily a traditional preservation background and it's not necessarily, maybe even their mission and goal. So, there's a huge need to understand the motivations for interest in material culture and as well as start to develop, deepen the conversation of what professionalization looks like.
Museums tend to make use of local resources: staff and volunteers are already embedded in their communities and likely are familiar with local experts, funders, and other resources. But locals may be less familiar with nonlocal opportunities and could be intimidated by applying for a federal grant.
For the IMLS, it will be important to monitor and communicate about opportunities to people in the American Latino museum field, providing technical assistance and support to institutions that perceive federal grants as beyond their capacities and making connections through these institutions to the broader Latino community.
What does a focus on Latino history, art, and culture mean?
Our research identified 106 museums that had American Latino history, art, or culture as their stated mission and another 164 that recently housed federally funded exhibits on American Latino history, art, or culture. (The latter group is not exhaustive and does not include museums that have hosted exhibits funded by nonfederal sources.)
While the first group are likely eligible for the ALHC program grants, incorporating the second group is more complicated. These institutions range from the largest and most well-endowed museums in the US to small historic sites, neighborhood-based cultural centers, and galleries. People we spoke with had mixed thoughts—some felt a sense of “obligation to strengthen existing Latino organizations,” whereas others voiced concerns about larger institutions with experience in receiving federal grants crowding out smaller museums. Still others had an appetite for building connections between smaller and larger institutions to benefit everybody.
Pairing a smaller American Latino museum with another museum could allow institutions to cocreate exhibits and build capacity. This way, other museums could incorporate the American Latino experience into their own exhibits and programming while providing opportunities to Latino professionals working in these institutions.
As the IMLS sets up its ALHC grant program, this diversity of types of Latino museums and their missions reflects the promise and the challenge of supporting the American Latino museum field. While there is no single portrait of an American Latino museum, by engaging in sustained outreach, building connections, and thinking inclusively, the IMLS can build a field that reflects the diversity of American Latino communities and experiences.
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