Margaret Salazar-Porzio Speaks to History Department About Diversity in Smithsonian Exhibits

Margaret Salazar-Porzio addresses the History Department about her work increasing diversity in Smithsonian exhibits.As part of National Hispanic Heritage Month, Margaret Salazar-Porzio, PhD, presented “Creating Communities of Courage: The Challenges of Public History at the Smithsonian,” on Sept. 25, addressing the challenges faced by the Smithsonian in representing diversity. “We’re in a current climate of divisiveness right now,” she began. “The field of public history, though, is superbly positioned to unite our fragmented nation. And I’d like to argue that we can transform our institutions in the process. This can be done by considering initiatives for diversity and community engagement together,” she said.

Following an introduction by History Department Chair E. Elena Songster, Salazar-Porzio, the curator of Latina/o History and Culture in the Division of Home and Community Life at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., discussed a recent Smithsonian exhibit she co-curated on American cultural integrity and immigration called Many Voices, One Nation. She showed examples from it to illustrate “how public history plays out in our collecting and exhibition work.”

Salazar-Porzio emphasized the need for diversity across the board in determining what goes into an exhibition. “Who is at the table is just as important as what we do together,” she said. “We need representation in our faculty, in our staff, in our museum administrators, and in our projects to reflect a diversity of voices and perspectives. And this diversity, not only in race—though importantly in race—is a framework that continues to need champions on campus and especially in Washington, D.C., right now.

“But it’s not just the diversity of the people in our institutions: It is the inclusion of our voices in the decision-making processes and the content of our projects, courses, and work in general. While diversity and inclusion are essential building blocks for a just society, I see them as bookends to a larger project that includes, importantly, equity and accessibility as well.”

Salazar-Porzio discussed how these four factors—inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility—make up a new framework for building an architecture of full participation. “This work takes real courage. Public history is particularly positioned to do this kind of work.” She added, “The nation faces the task of rebuilding the ‘we’ in We the People. We need to come together and be courageous in this context.”

In building the Many Voices, One Nation exhibit, Salazar-Porzio examined how Latinx stories could be featured throughout 500 years of history. This new framework offered the opportunity to look at how the museum aims to show the history of intersections. “The exhibit demonstrates layers that defy black and white,” she said, “to generate discussion among the audience.”

The exhibit, which will be up for 15 to 20 years, does not take a typical chronological approach. Instead, for example, one area features a large statue of George Washington surrounded by the faces of people of color. A 1400s exhibit shows Europeans “unsettling the continent” already populated by native peoples. And another exhibit features a piece of the U.S.–Mexico border fence. “It’s an object to be reckoned with,” Salazar-Porzio said, “an opposing backdrop.” Objects from the Arizona desert are placed “to prove a journey.”

In conclusion, Salazar-Porzio noted she has set three criteria for future projects. First, the project needs to be inclusive and complex in partners—with collaborators from all sectors— and show broad diversity. Work at the museum also needs to align with the interests of community partners, which will make it sustainable. And third, the project must increase the creative engagement of the museum staff along with communities to change how the museum looks and functions.

This talk launched the History Department’s NEH Grant–funded programming for “Partner in Public History.” A reception followed at Saint Mary’s Museum of Art, where Graphicanos: Contemporary Latino Prints From the Serie Project was open to view, and artist Ester Hernández met with students and staff to discuss her 2008 screen print Sun Raid, on prominent display.