Smithsonian to Host Symposium about “Ethnic” Museums

Speakers to Discuss the Evolving Connection between Museums and Identity
April 18, 2012
News Release

The Smithsonian will provide a forum for a discussion about “culturally specific” or “ethnic” museums Wednesday, April 25, from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The daylong event will be held at the National Museum of the American Indian at Fourth and Independence Avenue SW, in the museum’s Rasmuson Theater.

“(Re)Presenting America: The Evolution of Culturally Specific Museums” will address a debate that was reignited in May 2011 when a federal commission recommended establishing a Smithsonian museum dedicated to American Latinos. Critics of “ethnic” museums argue that museums dedicated to the experiences or cultures of specific communities are divisive, while supporters insist that such museums enrich the national narrative and offer more depth and perspective into what it means to be an American.

To advance this conversation, this symposium brings together museum directors and scholars from across the Smithsonian, including:

  • Wayne Clough, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution
  • Konrad Ng, director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program
  • Richard Kurin, Smithsonian’s Under Secretary for History, Art and Culture
  • Claudine Brown, Smithsonian’s Assistant Secretary for Education and Access
  • Lonnie Bunch, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture

They will be joined by scholars and critics from across the country, including:

  • Ray Suarez of PBS NewsHour, who will moderate the discussion
  • Clement Price, a professor at Rutgers University and director of the Institute on Ethnicity, Culture and the Modern Experience
  • Congressman Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.)
  • David Hurst Thomas, a curator in the department of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History
  • Philip Kennicott, critic at The Washington Post

Panel discussions will also feature:

  • David Penney, associate director for museum scholarship at the National Museum of the American Indian
  • Lawrence Pijeaux, president and CEO of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute
  • Helen Samhan, senior outreach advisor at the Arab American National Museum
  • Beth Takekawa, executive director of the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience
  • Carlos Tortolero, president of the National Museum of Mexican Art

The program will include a performance by artist Kip Fulbeck, whose work explores multiracial identity, at 3:30 p.m. in the Rasmuson Theater. Following the symposium, a reception in the museum’s Potomac Atrium from 6 to 8 p.m. will feature artist Bunky Echo-Hawk (Pawnee/Yakama) in a live art performance, during which he will invite members of the audience to suggest themes that he will then incorporate into a new work of art.

The symposium will be webcast live at To join the conversation, follow the museum’s Twitter feed, @SmithsonianNMAI, and use the hashtag #CulturalMuseums. For more information on the symposium, visit

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Eileen Maxwell

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Linda St.Thomas

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