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Lawmakers look to the Mall for new Smithsonians, but it’s not a done deal yet

Site selection deadline is fast approaching for women’s history, American Latino museums

Where will the two newest Smithsonian museums find a home? Lawmakers and President Joe Biden are pushing for prime sites on the National Mall. Above, a woman takes a selfie on the mall in March.
Where will the two newest Smithsonian museums find a home? Lawmakers and President Joe Biden are pushing for prime sites on the National Mall. Above, a woman takes a selfie on the mall in March. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney’s exit from Washington at the end of the year coincides with a major victory in her decades-long fight to tell the stories of American women.

Maloney first began work on the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum in the late 1990s. She thought it would be a unifying project, one that would build consensus on a much bigger issue she aimed to tackle: ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.

Fast forward to 2022, and Congress has still not voted to amend the Constitution to prohibit discrimination based on sex. And Maloney, after losing a primary race in a redrawn district that pitted her against fellow New York Democrat Jerrold Nadler, is leaving Congress after three decades in which she served at one point as co-chair of the Women’s Caucus, and most recently as chairwoman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

But her vision of a museum on the National Mall dedicated to half the population of the United States is close to being realized. “Every other museum is dedicated to men,” she told CQ Roll Call in a recent interview.

It’s a daunting job for the Smithsonian, synchronously working to swing open the doors to two new museums. A location for not only the American Women’s History Museum, but also the National Museum of the American Latino, is expected to be announced by the Smithsonian Board of Regents by the end of December.

That’s the deadline Congress gave for selecting sites for each of the two museums when it folded legislation to create them into the omnibus appropriations and coronavirus relief package passed in December 2020.

“I’m absolutely thrilled about it. I can’t tell you how happy I am about it. There were many times people said, ‘Give up. Why are you working on this?’ and ‘It will never happen.’ But it has happened,” Maloney said.

“Every other museum is dedicated to men,” says Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., seen here in 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Smithsonian is primarily considering four sites, all on the National Mall. “That doesn’t mean that others are completely excluded,” Smithsonian spokesperson Linda St. Thomas said. The process began with a list of 27 initial sites, before those were narrowed down to 15 viable options and then finally what appears to be the final four.

Among the factors to take into account are nearby available transportation, environmental impact and, of course, cost. More importantly, St. Thomas noted, “space is limited” on the mall.

Still, President Joe Biden said earlier this month that “Congress should take action to honor the Latino community, and women, with their own museums on the National Mall. It’s time.”

The ​​endorsement was a win for both museums’ backers. They likened it to former President George W. Bush’s support for building the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the mall “in the heart of our nation’s capital.”

‘Think in terms of forever’

Situating the African American museum on the iconic strip of land that runs from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial faced pushback, the same pushback the new museums are up against today.

Maloney, who sponsored the bill to create the women’s museum and now sits on its advisory council, knows exactly where she wants it built: on the South Monument site, an undeveloped plot of land directly across from the African American museum.

The congresswoman thinks the parallel positioning would be fitting. “There is a close history between the women’s rights movement and abolitionists,” she said.

“The South Monument site is a beautiful site. It’s a prominent one. It has a proximity to a lot of foot traffic, which is important. There’s a lot of symbolism,” Maloney added.

Rep. Tony Cárdenas, a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, sits on the board of trustees for the Latino museum. He said the best location to showcase the history, accomplishments and culture of Latino communities in America is one the Smithsonian is calling the Tidal Basin site.

Located across the street from the Holocaust Memorial Museum, the site is perhaps better known as the rugby field on the National Mall.

The size of the undeveloped plot would allow for a large patio area, Cárdenas said, where the museum could create a “festival feeling” with live music, dancing and cultural celebrations. He said his community deserves nothing less than the opportunity to build a museum that reflects the “panoply of Latino cultures,” in the same way the African American community was able to reflect their diversity in their museum.

Rep. Tony Cardenas, D-Calif., wants a museum site that reflects the “panoply of Latino cultures.” (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Smithsonian Board of Regents meets on Oct. 24 to consider the two sites preferred by the advisory councils for the two museums, before making a final decision by the end of the year. But both face a fundamental challenge: the South Monument site and the Tidal Basin site lie within the “reserve” area on the mall where building is prohibited by federal law.

Unlike the Tidal Basin site, the South Monument site is listed in the establishing legislation. But for both sites, lawmakers likely would need to pass a new bill to allow the Smithsonian to build.

There are more problems, like footprints needing to be smaller because of additional zoning restrictions on the mall — meaning a narrower, taller building with several basement floors to allow for adequate exhibit space — as well as the issue of possibly blocking views of major landmarks, like the Washington Monument.

Concerns abound for the National Capital Planning Commission, one of the governing bodies required by law to be consulted in the building process.

Both of the preferred sites pose a number of “significant challenges,” Matthew Flis, senior urban designer for the NCPC, said at the September commission meeting. “We would strongly encourage the Smithsonian to avoid these significant constraints and consider other sites.”

NCPC members loudly voiced their concern over the Smithsonian’s focus on answering the call by lawmakers and now the White House to build both museums on the mall.

With two new museums, and plans underway to create a National Museum of Asian Pacific American History and Culture, the Smithsonian has to think long term, they argue.

“Everybody wants a front-row seat, and I appreciate that. But the mall is a finite resource,” Mina Wright, who represents the General Services Administration on the commission, said during the meeting last month.

Peter May of the National Park Service said during that same meeting that “the Smithsonian is not a young institution,” urging it to “think in terms of forever” and consider one of the many viable sites off the mall. “If we rush this, it’s possible we’ll get it wrong,” said Evan Cash, who speaks for the Council of the District of Columbia, urging the Smithsonian to ask for more time if it needs to work past the December deadline.

The commission’s chair, Beth White, recognized the importance of ensuring that “stories are told in an equitable way.” But she too urged the Smithsonian to “think toward the future.”

Despite the NCPC opposition, another set of voices could eclipse them in the end. “The overwhelming desire of the [congressional] committees is to be on the mall,” said Ronald Cortez, the Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for Administration, in response to the NCPC’s concerns.

Heave! Rugby players face field loss

Developing the Tidal Basin site would mean rugby teams in the D.C. area that play there would need to find a new location. That’s another issue flagged by the NCPC, and a disappointment to Matthew Robinette, president of the Capital Rugby Union.

He said rugby players by no means want to get in the way of the museums. “We’ve been around for a long time, and we’ll make the adjustments,” Robinette said.

“But rugby aside, just outdoor recreation space — if the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that cities definitely need to keep that in mind not just for visitors but for residents as well,” he added.

Josh Kube runs the DC Touch Rugby club that uses the field on a weekly basis. He said there are “so few fields that are available in the city in general,” and that development of the rugby field, which serves as a central meeting point for players who live in D.C. and Virginia, would mean “one less outdoor space.”

Neither Robinette nor Kube had been contacted by the Smithsonian or the museums’ advisory councils about the possible loss of their field space.

Cárdenas said he thinks rugby can continue to be played on the mall on the “hundreds and hundreds of acres of open space.” After the rugby field, the South Monument site is the next best option for the Latino museum, he told CQ Roll Call. But Cárdenas also recognized that it is the preferred site for the women’s museum.

Lawmakers want a ‘clean site’

The third site under consideration, the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building, both Cárdenas and Maloney strictly ruled out.

Cárdenas stressed that housing the Latino museum there would mean architects would need permission to make changes to the 141-year-old building. “The fluidity and ability for us to express ourselves will be tremendously limited,” he said.

As for the women’s museum, Maloney said she too wants “a clean site.”

What’s more, the Arts and Industries Building first opened to the public in 1881. “Women did not even have the right to vote,” Maloney said. She stressed the inappropriate nature of housing the women’s museum in a building that “speaks to a different time, a different place, a different history.”

The Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building reopened in 2021 after an extensive renovation. Now it’s on the short list to house the Smithsonian’s newest museums — but not everyone is a fan. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

But A&I, as it’s often referred to, could very well end up being the site of one of the two museums, despite it being less popular with lawmakers.

“It has one of the best locations in the city,” said St. Thomas, from the Smithsonian, noting the building’s prominent location on the mall; the fact it’s already under the Smithsonian’s jurisdiction; and that it could potentially allow for an earlier open date given builders wouldn’t be starting from the ground up.

The building does have limited space that could be temperature and humidity controlled to ensure the conservation of Smithsonian collections. The solution to that structural problem would be to build two levels of new exhibit space underground.

A fourth site, located north of the Capitol Reflecting Pool, isn’t a great fit, according to Cárdenas. “Security, security security — that was something that dominated every time we thought about that site,” he said, given its proximity to the Capitol building.

But it was listed as a possible site in the legislation to create the museums. Plus, it’s large enough to accommodate the full building area required, the NCPC noted in September, including “a large garden and public gathering space.”

Doors open in … a decade?

Maloney has a desk owned and given to her by Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to run on a national ticket for vice president, and a pilgrim’s hat that belonged to the family of suffragette Alice Paul. She plans to donate both to the women’s museum.

At the Latino museum, Cárdenas hopes to see an exhibit showcasing Latino astronauts, like his friend and fellow University of California, Santa Barbara graduate José Hernández, who completed a NASA Space Shuttle mission in 2009.

But it could be another 10 years before the doors open to visitors at the two museums. There’s an aggressive fundraising campaign ahead, followed by construction of the buildings and curating exhibits. Congress created the African American museum in 2003, for example, with a site selected in 2006, groundbreaking in 2012, and then finally a grand opening in 2016.

Shirley Thompson cools off in sprinklers at the National Museum of African American History and Culture during a voting rights march on Aug. 28, 2021. The museum took 13 years to go from authorization to opening. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Maloney is barred as a member of Congress from fundraising for the museum. Congress plans to provide 50 percent of the costs to open the museums, but the other half will be privately funded by donors. Back in 2016, the planning commission for the women’s museum recommended a fundraising goal of $150 million to $180 million from the private sector, while the commission for the Latino museum estimated in 2011 it would require $300 million.

Both museums have a portal on the website for donors to contribute. If every woman in America gave a dollar, Maloney noted, that would raise enough to meet the women’s museum’s fundraising goal.

“When I leave Congress, I’ll be more actively involved in fundraising,” Maloney said.

The Latino museum launched an inaugural exhibition at the National Museum of American History this summer. “¡Presente! A Latino History of the United States” offers an early look at stories and artifacts that reflect how Latinos and Latinas shaped the U.S.

But Cárdenas says that after waiting nearly two decades for the Latino museum, another 10 years for the grand opening is too long. He wants the museum completed in closer to six to eight years. He has a 6-year-old grandson and a 4-year-old granddaughter and said, “I want them to be able to see this museum while they’re still children.”

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