After decades of advocacy, a national museum devoted to Latino history and culture in the US is one significant step closer to reality: it has a director. On 2 May, Jorge Zamanillo will become the founding director of the National Museum of the American Latino (NMAL), one of two new institutions currently being planned in Washington, DC by the Smithsonian Institution. (The other, the American Women’s History Museum, was also formally established by legislation passed in late 2020, but no director has been named yet.)
Zamanillo has worked at the HistoryMiami Museum (a Smithsonian affiliate institution) since 2000, holding a range of titles from curator of object collections to, currently, executive director and chief executive. In that span he oversaw a renovation of the museum’s permanent exhibits and led a $45m expansion project in 2015-16 that doubled the size of the institution. Under his tenure the museum expanded its facility devoted to the region’s vernacular culture, the South Florida Folklife Center, and created a photography centre.
Lonnie Bunch, the Smithsonian’s secretary, said in a statement that Zamanillo’s leadership will prove “invaluable as we build this necessary museum from the ground up, helping us create a robust, dynamic, responsive museum that exemplifies what a 21st-century cultural institution should be”. In the same statement Zamanillo said “The Latino experience is American history, and I want to make sure our story will be preserved for future generations. This museum will celebrate Latino accomplishments and resiliency through powerful stories that capture the adversity faced over centuries by Latinos in the US and their perseverance to move forward and create a legacy.”
In addition to his endeavours at the Miami museum, Zamanillo has worked extensively as an archaeologist. He was the project manager for the development of the downtown Miami archaeological park Miami Circle. Prior to joining HistoryMiami Museum he worked for the Miami-based non-profit Archaeological and Historical Conservancy.
He currently serves as president of the Florida Association of Museums, as well as treasurer and board member of the American Alliance of Museums. He is also a founding partner of Made By Us, an organisation partnering with history museums across the US in order to engage and educate millennials and members of Generation Z.
The Smithsonian recently revealed the 19 members of the NMAL’s board of trustees, which began meeting last October and will advise on the institution’s site search, design process, acquisitions and fundraising. Its members include actor and producer Eva Longoria, chef and humanitarian José Andrés, Emilio Estefan (husband of Cuban-American singer Gloria Estefan), journalist Soledad O’Brien and Alfredo Rivera, the president of Coca-Cola for North America.
A survey of possible sites for the NMAL either on or near the National Mall has begun. In the meantime its first exhibition will open in the Molina Family Latino Gallery inside the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History later this year.
The timeline for constructing a new national museum in Washington, DC can be lengthy. The most recently opened Smithsonian institution, the National Museum of African American History and Culture—whose founding director, Bunch, subsequently became the Smithsonian’s first-ever Black secretary—opened its doors nearly 13 years after Congress passed legislation formally establishing it.