The boat sits before images of a choppy ocean, the sound of the waves coming from a directional speaker above. Visitors who press an on-screen button can smell the sea air, and those who connect to the The gallery’s enhanced technology through a QR code can access the labels and wall text describing it.
A highlight of the exhibition “¡Presente! A Latino History of the United States,” which opens Saturday at the National Museum of American History, the exhibit offers an immersive experience for visitors of all skill levels, including those with disabilities. As part of the most accessible gallery on the Smithsonian’s sprawling campus, it represents a milestone in the institution’s commitment to all audiences.
“We took the decision very early on to make the gallery as accessible as possible. We felt it was the right thing to do,” said Eduardo Díaz, acting deputy director of the National Latin American Museum. “The ‘aha’ moment is that it made it better for everyone.”
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The 4,500 square foot gallery will be the National Mall’s first permanent space dedicated to Latinos Americans, a growing segment of the national population. The gallery is the precursor to the National Museum of the American Latino, which Congress authorized in 2020 (along with the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum). Smithsonian officials are to select the sites for the two museums by the end of the year, and their design and construction are expected to take at least a decade. The Molina Family Latino Gallery, on the first floor of the three-story National Museum of American History, will host the Latino Museum’s exhibits until its permanent home opens.
Improving the gallery’s accessibility is a response to the country’s changing demographics and increased emphasis on diversity. According to federal data, as many as 1 in 4 adults in the United States have some form of disability. The Latin American community has a higher percentage of people with disabilities than the general population, which makes accessibility even more vital. The aging of the US population is another factor; the Smithsonian wants to provide the best possible experience for seniors and multigenerational families who visit regularly, officials said.
“People with disabilities want to feel welcome rather than tolerated,” said Janice Majewski, director of inclusive cultural and educational projects at the Human Centered Design Institute, an organization hired by the Smithsonian to work on the design of the gallery. “It’s saying to the visitor without an appointment: ‘Welcome. We really want you here. ”
The national campaign for greater diversity and inclusion that has swept the country in recent years has also influenced the design, said Beth Ziebarth, director of Access the Smithsonian. New exhibits at the National Air and Space Museum, slated to open in late fall, will build on the inclusive efforts of Latino exposure.
“If you’re not addressing access, you’re not providing inclusion. People with disabilities are part of diversity. They cross borders,” Ziebarth said.
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The exhibit focuses on the people, historical moments, and key concepts that exemplify the heritage of Latinos and Latina Americans. All material – text, subtitles and audio descriptions – is provided in English and Spanish.
The designers chose a highly readable color palette and print font, along with an easy-to-navigate physical layout. Sections covering colonial legacies, the expansion of the United States, and immigration stories run along its perimeter. Thirteen QR codes are scattered throughout, connecting a blind or visually impaired visitor’s smartphone and their text-to-speech software to the displayed text. The codes provide the thematic introductions to the sections and the descriptions of the main parts in each case. The system also offers information about the layout of the gallery and the location of the next code.
The numerous digital pieces in the exhibition are also accessible via a keyboard. The dozen oral histories of El Foro (the Forum), for example, familiar figures like journalist Maria Hinojosa and lesser-known ones like Ruby Corado, founder of Casa Ruby, a bilingual LGBTQ community center in Washington, and Nefertiti Matos, blind cultural accessibility consultant. Keyboards allow everyone to manipulate these digital displays.
Another major digital experience displays visual interpretations of demographic data, including trends in religion, higher education, and language. Interactive technology allows visitors to explore the data and learn, for example, the percentage of people of Latin American ancestry who identify as Hispanic, Latino, or Latino.
Ziebarth encourages sighted visitors to try the added technology, saying the audio adds a valuable layer of information.
“It allows you to focus on an object as the curator wishes,” she said.
A station at the entrance to the gallery explains how to use accessible technology. The keypads, which require wired headsets that must be plugged in at each stop, mirror the technology found in ATMs and airport kiosks, Ziebarth said, and visitors who are blind or visually impaired are familiar with it. A coordinator will be in the gallery from Wednesday to Sunday to help visitors who need help logging into the system; staff will provide inexpensive wired headsets for visitors who may not have them.
The keyboard technology doesn’t offer a wireless option, Ziebarth said, a fact that reveals the balance between work and the different levels of technology available to customers. Some smartphones and hearing aids are Bluetooth compatible, but many are not.
Tactile and olfactory experiences – including the smell of coffee at a domino table – enhance the visual displays, which also feature historical and contemporary biographies including Mexican American labor leader Cesar Chavez, Puerto Rican baseball player Roberto Clemente and Cuban American singer Celia Cruz.
As the first exhibition, “¡Presente!” offers a taste of what the future museum will add to existing Smithsonian content. It will also serve as a laboratory.
“You look at all the history, the art, the music, all the culture. It reinforces the idea that even with so many differences, we have so much in common,” said museum director Jorge Zamanillo, whose term began last month.
“It’s the core experience of the museum,” Zamanillo said, adding that he and his future staff will use the space to test content, ideas and technology. “It’s a big incubator. Imagine what we can do in 10 years.
¡Present! A Latin American History opens Saturday at the National Museum of American History, Constitution Avenue between 12th and 14th streets NW. americanhistory.si.edu.
Peter Wallsten contributed to this report.