Smithsonian Center for Lation Initiatives
The Interpretation and Representation of Latino Cultures: Research and Museums Conference Documentation
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Conference Overview

Seminar Report

Secretary Small's Welcome

Dr. Cardena's Welcome


“The Interpretation and Representation of Latino Cultures: Research and Museums” National Conference at the Smithsonian Institution took place during November 20 to 23, 2002 in Washington, D.C. It convened scholars in Latino studies, archivists, and museum professionals. The purpose was to examine the current status of research and educational literature on the interpretation, representation, and documentation of Latino cultures in museums and academic programs within the United States and Puerto Rico.

The conference was based on the annual Latino Graduate Training Seminar “Interpreting Latino Cultures: Research and Museums,” which was first offered in 1994. Organized by the Smithsonian Center for Latino Initiatives and the Inter-University Program for Latino Research, the seminar boasts 118 alumni. The conference provided an opportunity for former participants in the seminar and fellows of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Humanities Fellowship in Latino Cultural Research in a National Museum Context (1998-2001) to gather for the first time in a larger forum.

Conference sessions reflected the interdisciplinary field of Latino research and a variety of approaches to the interpretation and representation of material and expressive cultural practices. The conference program and structure were designed by an expert advisory board consisting of core faculty of the training seminar in collaboration with Magdalena Mieri from the Center for Latino Initiatives. Funding was provided by the Rockefeller Foundation, IUPLR, and University of Notre Dame.

Program Theme

The issues of interpretation or the meaning making process, and representation, the public perception of that meaning, are quite challenging, more so in national institutions such as the Smithsonian.  Some of the most fundamental questions that have been discussed in the Latino Graduate Training Seminar for the last 7 years, wrestle with issues of identity and representation. Who are we as Latinos portrayed in museums?  Who are we, in the museums, or in academia to decide or “define” that? How can we be best advocates for inclusion when our stories are ignored? What are the many messages imbedded in cultural materials? How can we best record/register cultural practices? And who and how are they going to be de-codified? What are the stories that objects, images, people care about? Which ones should we place in museums?

All these questions and many more are the driving energy in analyzing objects, images, documents, performances, and music. They ultimately affect how we conceive exhibitions, programs, and plan for collections acquisition.

All these questions are underlying the presentations and discussions of this conference.

Numbering 40 million (including the 3.8 million residents of Puerto Rico), Hispanics and Latinos comprise the largest minority population in the United States. This country’s U.S. Hispanic heritage is centuries old, predating the arrival of other immigrants by many years. Indeed, colonies of Spanish and American Indians have been traced back to the early 1500s.

Across the nation, however, the diversity of the Latino experience in North America—when it is portrayed at all—most often reflects a romantic notion of imported folk culture. The mix of U.S. Latino contributions from past generations and contemporary Latino culture is rarely explained within museums and educational programs. In addition, there are relatively few opportunities for Latino scholars and professionals at museums to exchange information and work collectively to produce new, exciting exhibitions and programs that dig deep into historic collections and revive a sense of a profound, ever-changing heritage.

As U.S. Hispanics and Latinos grow in numbers and significance, it is increasingly important for the nation to know and understand what Hispanics and Latinos have contributed to the United States for more than 400 years and what Hispanics and Latinos contribute to U.S. culture and society today. The challenge for scholars, including those at the Smithsonian Institution, is to advance knowledge and understanding of Hispanics and Latinos within the United States.

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