The next Smithsonian museum on the National Mall could honor the American Latinx community.
The U.S. House of Representatives voted Monday morning in favor of creating a new Smithsonian National Museum of the American Latino. The bill passed by voice vote.
If the bill makes its way into law, the Smithsonian would then conduct an 18-month feasibility study and look for a place for the museum on the National Mall. The federal government would likely foot half the cost of the museum, while private supporters would raise the other half.
Majority leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), one of the bill's nearly 300 co-sponsors, placed the bill on today's House floor schedule. In his remarks, he said that a Latino museum is more important than ever because of the current fraught political debate over immigration.
"I look forward to the day when we can walk through the doors of the Smithsonian's newest museum and experience the full richness and diversity of Latino cultures and how they have helped to make America great," Hoyer said.
The idea of a national museum honoring the country's Latinx community first gained traction in 1994 after a task force found that Latinos had been "willfully neglected" by the Smithsonian and largely left out of its exhibitions and programming.
The task force laid out ten goals that could correct the imbalance, including the creation of a national museum. A study conducted by an independent group in 2018 found that the Smithsonian had made little progress on most of those goals.
The list of goals also includes ensuring Latinx representation in the Smithsonian's workforce. The proportion of people who identify as Latinx working at the Smithsonian, however, does not reflect the fact that Latinos make up nearly a fifth of the U.S. population. In 1994, 2.7% of the Smithsonian's workforce was Latino. In 2018, it was only at 5%, according to the Smithsonian.
But today's House vote is far from a guarantee for the museum's future. Multiple bills to create a Latino museum have been introduced in the past, but all stalled in Congress. President George W. Bush first established a Latino museum commission back in 2008.
While the bill attracted bipartisan support — it had 295 Republican and Democratic cosponsors — the concept of a national museum honoring the country's Latinx community has been contested for years by both Democrats and Republicans.
In 2011, Rep. Jim Moran (D-VA), told The New York Timesthat he didn't want to see "a situation where whites go to the original museum, African-Americans go to the African-American museum, Indians go to the Indian museum, Hispanics go to the Latino American museum. That's not America."
The museum's cost could be another sticking point: It comes with a nearly $700 million estimated price tag, according to The Hill. The last Smithsonian museum to open on the Mall, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, cost about $540 million.
In terms of the museum's location, the National Mall doesn't have much room left for a new building. One idea has been to repurpose the historic Arts and Industries Building for the museum, though this would require adding significant space underground or elsewhere.
The museum bill was introduced by Rep. José Serrano (D-NY), who has represented the Bronx in the House since 1990. He will be retiring from the House this year following a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease.
A number of Serrano's House colleagues took their opportunity on the floor to honor his legacy as a civil rights activist and his dedication to the concept of an American Latino museum. Some Latinx members of Congress said Serrano's bill would help educate Americans about their diverse community.
"Our American history and identity is also Latino history and identity," Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), said in support of the bill. "Through this history, the United States exists."