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House approves study for a Latino museum in Washington

WASHINGTON—The House of Representatives on Tuesday laid the groundwork for an ambitious new museum honoring Latinos.

Supporters of the proposed National Museum of the American Latinos still face a long road ahead, but moved a crucial step forward when the House agreed to spend $3.1 million on a commission to study the potential museum.

"Walk through the National Mall in Washington, D.C., visit our outstanding national museums and you can learn a lot about who Americans are and where we have been," said Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif. "Yet the official narrative still fails to recognize the significant contributions made by Latinos to the culture and history of the United States."

The proposed museum would be based somewhere in Washington. Beyond that, key questions involving cost, governance, fundraising, collections and precise location remain unresolved. The museum might be folded into the Smithsonian Institution, for instance, or it might remain separate.

The House bill sets up a 23-member commission to help answer those questions. Seven members would be appointed by the president and the remainder by congressional leaders. The commission would have two years to report back.

The legislation specifies that the commission could convene a national conference "comprised of individuals committed to the advancement of American Latino life, art, history and culture." The commission is also supposed to study "how to engage the American Latino community" in planning and building the museum.

That community is large, with some 45 million U.S. residents said to be of Latino ancestry.

So far, it's not partisan. That doesn't mean, though, the museum is trouble-free.

Seven House members spoke in favor of the Latino museum bill Tuesday, including Republican Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida and Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington. No one spoke in opposition, and it passed by voice vote.

Congress has been contemplating the proposed Latino museum for several years, and the House approved a similar bill last year without the Senate acting. This year's bill again needs Senate approval.

While politically alluring, though, the Latino museum idea also raises provocative questions about Washington's monumental future.

In November, officials broke ground on a $100 million memorial honoring the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The King Memorial, approved by Congress in 1999, will be located prominently near the Jefferson Memorial and will occupy valuable space on the National Mall, which has become more crowded by the year.

"When the National Mall and politics collide, too often the Mall loses, and yet another politically mandated memorial or museum crowds its way onto the open space," Judy Scott Feldman, chair of the National Commission to Save Our Mall, testified last year.

Feldman's group has raised caution flags about a proposal to build a large, underground visitors center adjacent to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The visitors center, though, has enjoyed strong political support, with the former chairman of the House Resources Committee, California Republican Richard Pombo, pushing efforts to exempt the underground project from standard environmental reviews.

The Smithsonian's latest facility, the National Museum of the American Indian, opened in September 2004—about 15 years after Congress authorized it. The four-story building commands a prominent location near the Capitol and the National Air and Space Museum.

If the Mall is off-limits to a new Latino museum, planners could look for a spot elsewhere in the city and the "environs" of Washington, the bill states.


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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