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An Indelible Imprint: An interview with Eduardo Diaz

Category: Museum Magazine
Headshot of Eduardo Diaz with short dark hair and dark wire rimmed glasses.

The Smithsonian Latino Center is the recipient of AAM’s 2018 Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion (DEAI) award for institutions. Eduardo Díaz, Director of the Latino Center offers insight on the organization’s work, accomplishments, and vision. This interview is a continuation from the Tributes and Transitions section of the November/December issue of Museum magazine (a benefit of membership with AAM). 

What is the mission of the Smithsonian Latino Center?

Our official mission statement reads: “The Smithsonian Latino Center unlocks dynamic US Latino stories that shape our national experience and identity.” To that I would add that our abiding vision is to, in doing the above, transform the Smithsonian into a Latino-serving institution. Our focus is the US Latino community in all its diversity.

How has the Latino Center advanced the work of the Smithsonian Institution and the museum field?

Since its creation in 1997, the Latino Center has played an integral role in supporting research, exhibitions, collections, public and educational programs, digital outreach, publications, educational products, and leadership and professional development programs at the Smithsonian. Over the years, the Latino Center has organized exhibitions, initiated and managed its own leadership and professional development programs. These combined efforts have helped strengthen lasting pan-institutional Latino representation and presence at the Smithsonian.

This effort is not sustainable without the willful engagement of and partnership with Smithsonian leadership in the Castle (the administrative hub) and at the division level—museums, research centers, archives, and outreach service providers. I have really great colleagues who have welcomed and supported Latino initiatives and who have witnessed critical success in implementing them. We have demonstrated to the museum field that ensuring diversity, inclusion, and equity is not only the right and ethical thing to do, but it requires an intentional institutional commitment of financial and human resources, combined with a healthy dose of creativity.

What are a few of the Latino Center’s important programs or initiatives?

  • Latino Initiatives Pool (since 1995): Annually, the Latino Center administers $2 million in federal funds to support Smithsonian divisions for research, exhibitions, collections, public and educational programs, digital outreach, publications, educational products, and leadership and professional development programs. We also use a portion of the funds to support the Latino Curatorial Initiative, described below. To date, the Latino Center has administered $27.5 million in awards to Smithsonian units (excluding the Latino Curatorial Initiative).
  • Latino Curatorial Initiative (since 2010): This program embeds full-time Latina and Latino content experts within Smithsonian divisions. These include curators, archivists, and program managers. To date, we have supported 11 positions at the Archives of American Art, Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, National Museum of African American History and Culture, National Museum of American History (three positions), National Museum of the American Indian, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. Additionally, we have set aside funds to support contracted curatorial assistants, eight in the first year, to work directly with Latino and non-Latino curators (e.g., National Postal Museum on its baseball project, National Museum of American History on an exhibit associated with the Smithsonian’s American Women’s History Initiative, and the National Portrait Gallery on its upcoming exhibition “1898: The American Imperium”). I am deeply indebted to Richard Kurin, former Smithsonian provost, for his vision and support in launching the initiative and to John Davis, the current provost, for his support in continuing and expanding the program.
  • Young Ambassadors Program (since 2006): Young Ambassadors is a leadership development program for 20–22 college-bound, graduating Latina and Latino high school students. It consists of a) a one-week immersion seminar at the Smithsonian (arts, humanities, and sciences), b) a four-week, paid internship at a partner museum or cultural center, typically in their hometown, c) Conexiones, regional get-togethers of program alums, d) post-collegiate seminars to help alums with their careers or graduate school, and e) an active, close-knit community on social media dubbed nuestra familia (our family). Students come from 17 cities in 11 states and Puerto Rico. Presently, there are 263 program alums. We recently completed a longitudinal study and found the program enjoys a 94.6% college graduation rate and results in producing “community conscious” leaders. Many alums have embarked on successful careers in the arts, business, education, and technology sectors, among others.
  • Latino Museum Studies Program (since 1994): This is a professional development program for emerging Latina and Latino scholars and museum professionals. Traditionally, these graduate students come from fields in the arts and humanities. An average of 12 students spend six weeks in Washington, divided between a two-week seminar and a four-week practicum where they are assigned a work placement with Smithsonian colleagues on Latino-focused projects (e.g., archival and field research, exhibition preparation, and digitization and digital immersion strategies, among other assignments). Presently, there are 314 program alums, 64 of whom are working at museums, cultural centers, parks services, and other related institutions, including the Smithsonian.
  • East Los Angeles College/Vincent Price Art Museum Partnership (since 2017): This new partnership was created to introduce museum studies and practice to Latina and Latino students earlier in their academic careers. East Los Angeles College (ELAC) students enroll in a special museum studies seminar, which includes internships at the Vincent Price Art Museum (VPAM), located at ELAC, and at the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian component consists of a one-month immersion tailored to the students’ interests (e.g., curatorial practice, museum education, exhibition design, and digital immersion and outreach, among others). Plans are underway at ELAC to establish a formal museum studies certificate program and more active relationship-building with Los Angeles-area four-year institutions to facilitate student transfers after sophomore year.
  • “Taíno: Native Heritage and Identity in the Caribbean”: This exhibition opened at the National Museum of the American Indian-New York in late July 2018, the culmination of seven years of research, collections assessment, and exhibition planning in collaboration with American Indians. It is the first exploration at the Smithsonian of the implications of first contact in the Americas from an indigenous perspective and highlights the history and emergence of contemporary Taíno community movements. This is the latest example of a Latino Center–driven exhibition project, which also included an day-long symposium and upcoming correlative public and educational programs. Future exhibitions at other museums are currently in the research and early design stages.

What do you consider the Latino Center’s most significant accomplishment?

  • Programs: The Latino Center, largely through the Latino Initiatives Pool, has enabled hundreds of diverse programs across the Smithsonian in the arts, humanities, and sciences, impacting hundreds of thousands of in-person and virtual museum visitors and serving hundreds of researchers. There have been so many achievements throughout the years, for examples, since 2010, the Smithsonian American Art Museum has increased its Latino collection by 62%. By now, it could arguably have the largest US Latino collection of any mainstream art museum in the country. Media coverage in Latino outlets has also increased by more than 200% meaning we are able to share these stories far beyond the walls of the physical Smithsonian, with audiences all over the country and world.
  • People: The Latino Center’s leadership and professional development programs have served hundreds of participants, many of whom are in the museum field and are otherwise engaged with and supporting museums and cultural centers around the country. I think it is critical for us to expand pathway programs for emerging Latina and Latino scholars and museum professionals, which we are doing through our partnership with East Los Angeles College and its Vincent Price Art Museum. Naturally, the Latino Center is very proud to have received AAM’s Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion award in 2018 for its Latino Curatorial Initiative. I believe this initiative is a model for ensuring first voice representation in museum practice.
  • Place: The Latino Center launched its Latino Virtual Museum in 2009, an avatar-based, multi-user virtual environment, featuring a variety of gallery experiences, videos, and educational tools. This prompted the increased digitization of Latino collections and, naturally, continuing experimentation as digital and virtual technologies matured and expanded. While Latino content will continue to be delivered on digital platforms and in new and exciting ways (e.g., mobile site), the Latino Center is in the process of developing a physical gallery space on the National Mall. Most readers are aware of legislative efforts to establish a National Museum of the American Latino. These legislative efforts, ongoing since 2011, have not made progress on Capitol Hill. As the nation’s museum, the Smithsonian is integrating Latino spaces within its several facilities and developing a growing cadre of Latina and Latino museum professionals to carry on the work of filling these spaces with content about our experience and collecting the material culture with which to do so.

What are some of the challenges and opportunities in doing this work?

Getting things done at a behemoth institution like the Smithsonian is often a challenge, just as it would be working within any bureaucracy of its size. Having said that, the Latino Center receives wonderful support from all the institution’s administrative and technical service units—from budget to communications to advancement to facilities. I tip my hat in gratitude to previous Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough and the current Secretary David Skorton. Both have been open, generous, and encouraging in their support of our efforts. Nearly all of my colleagues realize that the mandate of representing the Latino experience within the Smithsonian is serious and important—a pan-institutional effort that must be facilitated, supported and celebrated.

The fractured nature of our current political climate and discourse certainly presents its challenges. Anti-immigration rhetoric becomes another front on which we have to fight, with information like the often overlooked fact that more than two-thirds of the Latino population was born or naturalized here. Unfortunately, this environment does make it difficult to produce and promote programs about the Latino experience. Despite this obstacle, we will continue to ensure that we are presente.

The greatest opportunity we have is to tell stories about the many ways our diverse Latino communities have helped build this country and shape its national culture. There are so many Latino stories that have been under-researched and remain untold. There are so many of our artists who are still unknown. There are so many of our scientists who have yet to be recognized for their contributions. Latino history is foundationally American history—period. Latino art is fully rooted in the canon of American art—full stop. At the Smithsonian and at other museums, we have significant opportunities to center the Latino experience within the American experience, and at the local level across this country, to go deep in examining and conveying the history, old and new, of Latino presence.

What advice would you give to others doing, or aspiring to do, this work?

My educational background is actually in law, so something I don’t always feel like the best-qualified person to dispense advice relative to museum work. However, I’ve worked in the cultural sector for more than 35 years. From a museum perspective, I would start by grounding your individual practice in what it means to work as essentially custodians of our cultural and scientific patrimonies. From this point of departure, it is then critically important to commit oneself to representing the full measure of the American experience and then secure the necessary resources to fully and accurately accomplish this goal. One must be absolutely prepared to be transparent and accountable and be open to continuing oversight. The communities you serve deserves no less.

What do you hope the museum of the future will look like?

I believe that the museum of the future must be wholly inclusive of the vast diversity of experiences and contributions of all American communities. Research, exhibitions, collections, public and educational programs, web-based content, and publications must reflect these experiences and contributions. However, we also must go beyond diversity and inclusion to also ensure equity; that is, the development and allocation of financial and human resources necessary to support, in our case, Latino initiatives.

In today’s museum environment DEAI has emerged as an important mantra and set of objectives in transforming institutions that adequately serve communities of color and other under-served, under-invited communities. I give a lot of credit to AAM for making this a priority in its modus operandi and influencing the national museum field.

Recently, I have become increasingly interested in the “A” in DEAI. I believe museums lag significantly in effectively serving the needs and interests of those constituents with physical, sensory, and/or cognitive differences. While there have been significant technological advancements, and the development of exciting and creative new approaches, it seems that too many institutions are satisfied with meeting basic ADA standards. I strongly believe we must do better than that and align ourselves with and abide by universal design standards that will help us effectively deliver content in ways that these constituents can grasp and appreciate. They, too, deserve a meaningful and enriching museum experience.

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