Years in the making, US Congress approves new museums honouring Latinos and women

Years in the making, US Congress approves new museums honouring Latinos and women
The US Capitol Building, where the Senate and House of Representatives meet. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
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With the approval of the US Senate, a National Museum of the American Latino and a national museum of women’s history have gotten the green light to proceed in Washington, DC. Both of the museums have been in the works for years and will become part of Smithsonian museums after Congress included them in a $2.3 trillion year-end spending bill.

Campaigns for the museums aren’t new at all; in 1994, following a report that found the Smithsonian to have displayed “a pattern of willful neglect” towards Latinos, the fight for a museum dedicated to Latinos and their contributions to the US began. A 2008 study recommended to Congress that a museum honouring the Latino people of America be constructed. Similarly, the campaign for a women’s museum has been in the works since 2003, although it wasn’t until 2014 that a congressional commission recommended the museum. Congressional approval was needed for both as they will become part of the Smithsonian, which is a government funded series of museums, particularly found in the US’s capital.

In February and then July, the bill for the women’s museum and American Latino museum were passed by the House of Representatives respectively. They then headed to the senate where they were expected to pass without any objection. For that reason, the bill’s sponsors were looking for a unanimous vote, which is a measure taken to expedite the process for bills that are expected to pass with ease. However, that was not the case when one senator rejected the bill.

In early December, when the bills first hit the senate floor, Utah Senator Mike Lee blocked the museums’ progress. Citing “hyphenated Americanism,” a term coined by Theodore Roosevelt, Lee’s rejection of the bills temporarily halted their progress.

“My objection to the creation of a new Smithsonian museum or series of museums based on group identity… is not a matter of budgetary or legislative technicalities,” said Lee of his opposition. “It’s a matter of national unity and cultural inclusion.” He continued saying “at this moment in the history of our diverse nation, we need our federal government and the Smithsonian Institution itself to pull us closer together, and not further apart,”

After the museums were paused, debates over their purpose began, hearing both Republicans and Democrats speak in their favour. Ultimately, the senators came to an agreement, passing the museum bills just before Christmas.

Support of Congress was a critical hurdle, and one that took many years to reach, but it will likely be another 10 years before each museum is completed. Among other obstacles will be the locations for both museums. A prized spot along the National Mall, where a number of other Smithsonian museums are found as well as the Capitol Building and Washington Monument, however, due to crowding, that might not be an option.