Smithsonian moves to embrace Latin culture Peruvian scholar catalogs collection of hundreds of photos


WASHINGTON -- Deep in the hushed archives of the Museum of Natural History, far from the thronging schoolchildren streaming past an 8-ton African elephant, Latin America specialist Laura Larco is on an expedition for the Smithsonian Institution.

She dons white gloves and decides to shun the face mask she sometimes wears against decades-old dust. She gingerly removes a turn-of-the-century 8-by-10-inch glass negative from an envelope and, for the benefit of a visitor, describes a scene from the 1899-1902 U.S. occupation of Cuba:

"It's a parade," she says, squinting at the image. "Crowds of people ... a town square ... mounted on horses." U.S. flags flap in a century-old Caribbean breeze.

Collection being cataloged

Larco, a Peruvian musicological anthropologist, is cataloging hundreds of photographs, negatives and slides that have been gathering dust in the institution known as America's attic - Mexican Indians here, Amazonian natives there, often taken by official U.S. photographers on expeditions south of the border.

Even if the pictures don't join the 3 percent of Smithsonian artifacts on exhibit, she says, her one-year project to catalog Latin American photographs will be an invaluable online research tool for future scholars.

But Larco's work also illustrates a nearly 3-year-old effort taking place in all sorts of nooks and crannies around the 16 units of the Smithsonian. From the Freer and Sackler galleries to the Air and Space Museum, curators and researchers have been told to make Hispanic culture and history a more integral part of the cherished museum of Americana.

The effort follows decades of an Anglo preoccupation that was ** first disrupted to accommodate African-American, and later American Indian, sensitivities.

"We're doing a little better in hiring. We're obviously trying to be -- more conscious of what we're doing in reaching out to the Latino community," said Smithsonian Secretary I. Michael Heyman.

Stung by 1994 report

The Smithsonian was stung by a 1994 task-force report called "Willful Neglect, the Smithsonian Institution and U.S. Latinos," which said curators had insensitively left out the contributions of Hispanics in American society, partly because of an institutional bias, partly because hiring practices had ignored Hispanics for years.

In response, the institution hired task-force investigator Miguel Bretos, a Cuban-American historian from Miami, who has been overseeing an institution-wide effort to not only be more sensitive to hiring Hispanics but to also be more aggressive in showcasing their history and accomplishments.

"White males have run this place," said Bretos, who before coming to Washington was founder of the Cuban Archives at Florida International University.

Bretos traces the Anglo bias to a national psychology that, he said, is still rooted in the English victory over the Spanish in settling the United States.

"It's the victors who write the history," he said. "There has been a tendency in this country to ignore that Hispanic past and that Hispanic root."

Institution-wide, he said, the gaps in Latino programming, particularly on art, culture and folklore, have been "humongous. ... Now the idea is to inject Hispanic culture where it's appropriate throughout the museum."

A few examples:

* An exhibition called "American Voices: Latino Photographers in the United States" is on display in the underground chambers of the Smithsonian's International Gallery. Featuring the work of Chicanos, Cuban Americans, Puerto Ricans and other Hispanics, goes on a two-year national tour starting next year.

* The National Museum of American Art in 1995 showcased an exhibition called "Farm Workers' Altars and Posters from the Chicano Movement," while Hispanic artifacts, notably Cesar Chavez's jacket and an outfit worn by the pop singer Selena, are on tour with "America's Smithsonian," the 150th commemorative exhibit traveling the nation.

* After a complete absence of Hispanic representation on the Smithsonian's 17-member board of regents, Texan Manuel Ibanez and Democratic Calif. Rep. Esteban Torres now serve as trustees of the institution.

Exhibits being planned

The Smithsonian recently acquired some 6,000 Puerto Rican artifacts - including rare 17th-century religious icons - from the collection of island scholar Teodoro Vidal. It is being divided between the Museum of American History and the Museum of American Art.

Smithsonian officials were also in Miami recently for exploratory talks on collaborating with the Cuban Museum of the Americas, perhaps as early as next year, on commemorative exhibitions and seminars for the Spanish-American War's centennial.

Plans include a June 1998 retrospective of Cuban-American painter Carlos Alfonzo at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden; the publication of a Spanish-language guide for the National Museum of the American Indian; and an exhibition, "American Portraits in the Hispanic Tradition," to open in the refurbished National Portrait Gallery in the year 2003.

One effort so far not envisioned, however, is a separate space - something akin to the National Museum of the American Indian or the Anacostia Museum, focusing on African-American heritage.

Instead, the regents recently approved the creation of a Center for Latino Initiatives, which will organize all scholarship and holdings related to Latino Americana across the Smithsonian's 16 units. It will also conduct research, play host to visiting scholars and sponsor fellowships.

Asked whether a Museum of Latino Americana was somewhere in the Smithsonian's future, Heyman replied, "There are really two ways to go. One is really a separate establishment, the other is to have a center that tries to involve the whole of an institution.

"In terms of both the mood in Washington, D.C., and the amount of money we have available, the later is the pathway I'm comfortable with. I do know at the moment that there's less of a push for separate institutions then there was."

Pub Date: 7/25/97

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