Latin American Museums in Washington, DC


First I want to share that I made a false statement when I said in a recent blog post that I plan to visit the new National Museum of African American History and Culture this month. Given how popular it is and how booked the free timed-passes are, it may actually be months or years before I visit.

Before and since this museum opened, people have been asking a parallel question: when will we see a national museum telling the stories of Latino history and culture?

The idea has been advanced for years, with the empty Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building as a favorite proposed site. Lawmakers, led by Representative Xavier Becerra (D-CA), are pushing for such a national museum. Joining in the support, the Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino website promotes a physical, national Latino museum and lists more specialized or localized existing museums throughout the country. As a DC resident, here is a list of local museums and cultural sites that somewhat overlaps with the website’s list:

Art Museum of the Americas is located a couple of blocks from where I work, and not too far from the monuments, the National Mall, the White House, and various other museums. It was my third Weekly Museum Visit, and I blogged about it when I visited a second time to see The Ripple Effect: Currents of Socially Engaged Art. As part of the Organization of American States, it works to further OAS’s mission to “put into practice the principles on which it is founded and to fulfill its regional obligations under the Charter of the United Nations.” These principles include peace, democracy, and eradication of poverty, and The Ripple Effect featured Latin American and Caribbean art that testified to these values.

The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) Cultural Center in downtown DC provides another place to see Latin American art.  IDB was officially established by OAS in 1959. I visited a few years ago to see an exhibition of Colombian art, which gave me “the opportunity to feel the magic extremes and enjoy this creative nation through a combination of art, history, image, feeling, experience and commitment with the future,” as described in this press release. My own take on the exhibit can be found here.

Fondo del Sol is a small museum inhabiting a converted row house in the Dupont Circle neighborhood that provides a bilingual exhibition space for Latin American art. Its website emphasizes its role as a community museum. Like Art Museum of the Americas, it was also one of my Weekly Museum Visits. I visited toward the end of its opening hours, but the staff invited me to stay past closing time and watch the beginning of a documentary about the Spanish Civil War.

Plant, candles, fruit, vegetable, rock - nature altar art piece

Art at Fondo del Sol in 2010

While the Smithsonian at this time does not have a Latino museum in its Arts and Industries Building, it does have a Latino Virtual Museum and a Latino Center whose exhibits have historically often been on display at the S. Dillon Ripley Center. The Ripley Center also hosted the traveling exhibition Amazon Voyage: Vicious Fishes and Other Riches ten years ago, with a scientifically- and culturally-focused experience that included live aquarium displays, lots of interactives my preschoolers back then loved, and bilingual English and Spanish text.

small building with a domed roof with green leafy trees to the left

The Smithsonian’s S. Dillon Ripley Center

In the demographically diverse Columbia Heights neighborhood, visitors can enjoy GALA Hispanic Theatre and the Mexican Cultural Institute. At GALA, I attended a screening of, and panel discussion following, The Goose with the Golden Eggs: Tourism on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast as part of the Environmental Film Festival in 2014. The theater offers bilingual programming as described on its bilingual website.

ceiling with intricate circular detail

Ceiling at GALA Hispanic Theatre photographed in 2014

I visited the nearby Mexican Cultural Institute today for the first time. In a beautiful old building with fancy furniture and colorful murals, the exhibits in the galleries were highly relevant to some of the most charged topics in today’s political debates and on people’s minds. The Overflow of Productivity Logic presents art that challenges or disrupts notions of productivity in a capitalist, consumerist society. A recurring theme was the role of the artist, thinker, or creator in a paradigm that only values quantifiable, utilitarian output as worthy of being called work. A second exhibit, DELIMITATIONS, documents an art installation that demarcated the border between Mexico and the United States based on the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819.

rectangular beige building with Mexican flag

Mexican Cultural Institute in Washington, DC

More resources on the broad subject of Latino American history and culture can be found on the National Hispanic Heritage Month website. This heritage month wraps up today, October 15 – this year with an additional focus on the possibility of a future national museum.

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About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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