Comparative Site Review

¡Presente! (Physical) at the National Museum of American History and ¡Presente! (Digital) at the National Museum of the American Latino, Smithsonian Institution

¡Presente! is in the Molina Family Latino Gallery at the National Museum of American History on the First Floor, one floor down from the street level. This exhibition was in the works long before the National Museum of American Latino was approved, but the gallery and the exhibition now serve as an incubator for the future museum. ¡Presente! aims to show that Latinos are diverse, have a long history on the land of this nation, and have made and continue to make significant contributions to the history and culture of the United States. Latino history is American history.

The design of the physical site does an excellent job communicating this argument from its choice of objects, didactic texts, videos, and interactive content. The interpretive point of view is to highlight Latino history and U.S. history from a Latino perspective and Latinos’ cultural contributions and legacies. Unfortunately, U.S. history textbooks and museums often neglect this perspective.

Latinos are the primary audience of this exhibition, as evidenced by its fully bilingual content. We have been systemically excluded from the Smithsonian Institution, as uncovered in two damning reports decades apart, and have waited so long for acknowledgment and inclusion. However, the broader goal is to help others understand the American Latino community, so non-Latino museum visitors are the secondary audience. Visitors to the exhibition were diverse, Latino, Black, Asian, white, and of all ages. Since it is not tourist season in DC, presumably most, if not all, were locals.

The items included include a range of personal and historical items from indigenous cultures in colonial times to the present across Latino cultures of every origin. Several items are highlighted as “signature objects” as denoted on their labels. In addition, they are frequently in separate glass cases or strategically placed at the beginning or end of large exhibit cases. The signature objects start with regalia from contemporary women of Las Inditas del Pueblo de Abiquiú, descendants of Genízaros, the enslaved indigenous population of New Mexico. The last signature object is the NASA helmet of Ellen Ochoa, the first Latina to go to space. The objects are divided into four themes, Colonial Legacies, War and U.S. Expansion, Immigration Stories, and Shaping the Nation. Each section has a wall text or two detailing the period of history to which it corresponds. Each object has a label explaining what it is and why the person or event associated with it is significant. Each section has a nook with a featured signature object and video content playing in the background screen above the object.

The exhibition is elliptical-shaped, with objects and interactive consoles along its perimeter. It has video content and more interactive consoles in the center, and a children’s craft center and library in a separate glass-walled room at the center back. The exhibit design is easy to navigate and encourages a single flow of traffic through its chronological order. Visitors can explore the interactive and video content in the center and then rejoin the exhibition or visit them at the end.

There are eight tall, vertical interactive panels showing the stories of eleven individuals representing various aspects of Latino identity and experience, including local voices. There were originally twelve, but Ruby Corado, disgraced for embezzling funds from her nonprofit a few months ago, was recently removed. The panels let you choose a speaker and which topics you want to hear. Each speaker greets you at the beginning and thanks you at the end. The oral histories are riveting and inspiring. I cried listening to one, the first time because I saw my cultural experience reflected, and again when she disclosed a personal tragedy. The panels randomly play clips from the oral histories loudly enough for people who are not listening to be intrigued. However, unfortunately, I was the only one there who was using the panels during my visit.

On the east and west sides behind the panels and on the north and south perimeter walls are consoles with interactive content with additional facts, maps, data and news relating to each section. They are color-coded to match the section of the exhibition to which they belong. You touch the screen to start and then use the buttons underneath to navigate. The directions are explained on the screen, but it still took some adjusting to realize that the touch screens were not navigationally functional. However, this design decision was likely intended to extend the usable life of the console. In addition, the interactive consoles are at wheelchair-accessible heights. As a result, children gravitated towards the consoles because they were the perfect height for them too.

There were no docents, curators or even security in the exhibition space. The lack of docents is one aspect of the physical exhibition that I would change. Docents could help encourage people to use the interactive panels and consoles and show them how. In my experience, this approach is effective. I usually never use interactive content in museum exhibitions unless encouraged. Without docents to encourage use, the ratio of interactive panels to users seems like an inefficient use of space. However, the content is compelling and deserves to be watched. In addition, there is too much space between the rows of interactive panels. There should be a glass case in the center with some of the smaller objects. The glass cases along the perimeter are too crowded. Moving the small objects will enable the larger objects to spread out and ensure greater appreciation for objects of all sizes.

¡Presente! the digital exhibition makes the same argument as its physical counterpart. Latinos are diverse, have a long history on this nation’s land, and have made and continue to make significant contributions to the history and culture of the United States. The objects connect the past and present Latino experience and show that Latino history is American history. The design communicates these arguments well. In its digital form, ¡Presente! shares the same themes as the physical exhibition, although they are grouped differently. The interpretive point of view highlights Latino history and U.S. history from a Latino perspective and Latinos’ cultural contributions and legacies.

Latinos are the primary audience for the digital exhibition. The intended audience is apparent because the exhibition website is hosted as part of the National Museum of the American Latino. However, it is also listed on the National Museum of American History’s website alphabetically under Collections and Exhibitions. It is strangely not accessible from their Latino History navigation heading. Therefore, the digital exhibition likely relies on visitors already interested in Latino history who arrive via keywords. Like the physical exhibition, the digital version is bilingual and accessible.

The navigation has been modified for digital audiences with some headings combined and renamed. The Colonial Legacies and War and U.S. Expansion sections of the physical exhibition are combined in one navigation heading on the website, Historical Legacies. The interactive video panels and the “Somos” short film are combined as Latino Identity. However, images of and content from each section of the physical exhibition are available via the virtual tour with their original names. A few of the oral histories, an abbreviated version of “Somos,” and Cheech Marin’s oral history in “Somos” appear as three and half minute clips on the website. Images and descriptions of each object and their didactic texts are available online as part of the digital site’s accessibility features. The digital site features some objects in 3D, so audiences can recreate the effect of seeing them in the gallery. The physical exhibition engages every sense except taste, and the digital exhibition does its best to recreate the physical exhibition and describe what they cannot.

The only opportunities to interact with the site’s creators are linked social media channels and an email address for the National Museum of the American Latino. They are monitored by communications and engagement staff who might be able to forward messages to the site’s creators. However, the creators are not named on the site. The museum has events that may provide opportunities to meet the museum’s staff. Overall, the site’s creators seem more interested in audiences engaging with Latino culture than the exhibition makers. If this is their goal, they have succeeded. The only thing I would change about the digital exhibition would be to include the full versions of the oral histories and “Somos.” Some visitors might have seen the exhibition and not had time to watch the entire short film and all the oral histories. Some Latinos who could never visit the exhibition might love to hear these stories. I wish I could share the oral history that made me cry with my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother. They all live far away, and the latter two cannot travel because of their health.

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