Tucked into the massive year-end deal President Trump finally signed to fund the government and coronavirus relief are provisions to fund a National Museum of the American Latino and an American Women’s History Museum as part of the Smithsonian Institution. They will supplement more than 19 museums, galleries, gardens, and a zoo the Smithsonian Institution already operates.
At some point, I guess, every sliver of the American population is going to get its own Smithsonian museum.
At the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Barack Obama declared, “There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.” Not so much now.
Now we are more a fragmented America that has shifted away from inclusion to exclusion and the proliferation of group identities. Maybe the members of each segmented group feel better about themselves, but it’s at the expense of national cohesion and productive discourse and too often leads to multiple categories of aggrieved, mutually antagonistic people.
Look at how identity fixation has already led to unwarranted minor and extreme accusations of cultural appropriation and the obscene cancelling of people caught in the spotlight.
“Democratic societies are fracturing into segments based on ever-narrower identities, threatening the possibility of deliberation and collective action by society as a whole,” wrote Francis Fukuyama, a prominent American writer and political theorist. “This is a road that leads only to state breakdown and, ultimately, failure.”
After we build American Latino and Women’s museums, are we going to be pressured to build separate museums honoring the contributions of German, Polish, Irish, French, Scottish, Puerto Rican, Dutch, Swedish, Chinese, Russian, Filipino, and Norwegian Americans? How about the contributions of men, the disabled or other yet-to-be-contrived categories of people?
There are already 11 Smithsonian Institution museums and galleries at the National Mall in Washington D.C., so finding space for two more on the mall will be hard. Finding room for 15 more will be impossible.
But arguing against more identity museums will be hard in the current climate, partly because politicians see advantage in pandering to special interests..
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) tried to kill funding for the new American Latino and Women’s museums. “The last thing we need is to further divide an already divided nation with an array of segregated, separate-but-equal museums for hyphenated identity groups,”” he said. “At this moment in the history of our diverse nation, we need our federal government and the Smithsonian Institution itself to pull us closer together and not further apart.”
His objection was met with withering criticism by other members from both sides of the aisle.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) responded with high dudgeon, calling Lee’s objections to the Latino museum “outrageous,” and saying Lee “…stands in the way of the hopes and dreams and aspirations of seeing Americans of Latino descent having their dreams fulfilled and being recognized.”
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) slammed Lee for trying to block a women’s museum “in a year where we’re celebrating the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage.”
Members also cited the conclusion of a congressional commission formed to study the potential for an American museum of women’s history that, “America needs and deserves a physical national museum dedicated to showcasing the historical experiences and impact of women in this country.”
In the end, funding for both museums came through. Expected to stand on or near the National Mall, the proposed museums will be the first to join the Smithsonian since the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in September 2016.
But will they really be cause for celebration?