“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
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.
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.
Copyright © 2003