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Smithsonian selects prime Mall spots for new museums

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The Smithsonian’s Board of Regents announced Thursday that it has selected two optimal locations for its new museums, the National Museum of the American Latino and the American Women’s History Museum. The sites are on undeveloped land on the southwest portion of the National Mall that is controlled by the National Park Service.

The “South Monument site” is on Jefferson Drive SW, across the Mall from the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The “Tidal Basin site” borders Raoul Wallenberg Place SW, Maine Avenue SW and Independence Avenue SW, just west of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and east of the basin. That site is now a playing field.

Next, before the Smithsonian can finalize the locations, it must get approval from Congress, and which site will be used for which museum will be announced at that time, the Smithsonian said. Congress passed legislation in December 2020 authorizing the two new museums and requiring the Board of Regents to designate the sites before the end of 2022.

“The Board of Regents has been committed to meeting the December deadline Congress set for the selection of sites for these important new museums,” Steve Case, chairman of the Board of Regents, said in an email to The Washington Post. “Our search has narrowed to two sites on the National Mall that we believe are optimal, and appropriate. We hope Congress will now consider legislation so we can move forward, as we seek to more fully showcase our collective American journey.”

Thursday’s update marks the near-final stage of a years-long process that will affect the shape of the Mall for generations. Selecting locations at such distinguished spots on the Mall is a deeply symbolic move, underscoring the importance of the new museums, which supporters have been fighting for since at least the 1990s. The National Museum of the American Indian and the African American Museum, the most recent additions to the Smithsonian, which opened in 2004 and 2016, respectively, also received coveted — and limited — Mall slots.

Smithsonian picks four potential spots for women’s and Latino museums

The news follows President Biden’s declaration at the White House’s Hispanic Heritage Month reception in September that the Latino and women’s museums should be built on the Mall, as “a reflection of the important role each plays in the fabric of our nation.”

Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III takes a sweeping, global view of the institution — and its newest museums.

“The Smithsonian is where the world comes to better understand what it means to be an American. This lens on America was widened and made better by building the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture,” he said in an email to The Post. “Our ability to comprehend the fullness and richness of America will be enhanced by the placement of the National Museum of the American Latino and the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum on the National Mall.”

Ayers Saint Gross, an engineering and architecture firm based in Baltimore, has helped in the site search and considered more than 25 potential locations for the museums. Options were whittled down to 14 in March and four in June based on the symbolism of the location, site conditions, transportation factors, environmental factors, cost and the challenges of site acquisition.

The two sites are located on the “Reserve,” a no-build zone, which could make approval tricky — but not without precedent. The African American Museum and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial are also in that zone.

In a June interview with The Post, Bunch liked deciding on the sites to have two children. “You want to make sure each museum feels they have been given the respect, the attention, the visibility they deserve,” he said.

With this step, the Board of Regents effectively eliminates what was believed to be the most likely choice for at least one of the museums: the Arts and Industries Building, which was also considered for the African American Museum and is the only site of the four selected in June under Smithsonian control. Bunch said in June that the Arts and Industries Building, which was designed in 19th-century, World’s Fair-era “Festival” style architecture, would have to be studied to see how it could be reimagined as a 21st-century museum. The board also eliminated a Northwest Capitol site, which is controlled by the US Capitol.

The site decisions are made in consultation with members of Congress, the National Capital Planning Commission, the US Commission of Fine Arts and the Architect of the Capitol.

Since their creation was approved by Congress, the new museums have been ramping up their operations. Last year, the Smithsonian named an advisory council for the Women’s History Museum that includes tennis great Billie Jean King, fashion designer Tory Burch, actress Rosario Dawson and others. And the Molina Family Latino Gallery, the first physical presence of the American Latino Museum, which is housed in the National Museum of American History, opened in June with a preview of what the museum might offer.