American History is the first Smithsonian gallery dedicated to Latino history and culture. The gallery's curatorial goal is to claim emphatically claim that "Latino history is American history." The breadth and ambition of this statement required us to open the design process to a transdisciplinary approach that invited Latinx artists, craftspersons, and other designers to co-create the gallery. By casting a wider net, we could leverage the cultural stakeholdership of Latinx creative practitioners from across the nation. With many creative voices contributing to the making of the gallery, the design aesthetics had a greater amplitude. As a result, the gallery experience acquired depth and complexity.
In parallel with a cultural transdisciplinary approach, we also invited the participation of persons with varying gifts and needs to review our design proposals and mock-ups. They provided us with on-site comments and suggestions. As a result, we could design solutions that merged seamlessly with the design aesthetic by asking for their participation early in the design process. The early participation helped the designers think inclusively at all design process steps.
The Molina Family Latino Gallery is a 4500 sq ft space developed by the National Museum of the American (NMAL), formerly the Smithsonian Latino Center. The gallery will house rotating exhibitions for the next ten years. The inaugurate exhibit installed state-of-the-art exhibit infrastructure to be used for future exhibits. This includes huge cases along the gallery's perimeter that allow the display of artifacts of all sizes and weights. There is also a plaza space in the center with life-size public-history digital interactives. These will also rotate content, thanks to a content management system that supports uploading new video interviews. These design choices prevent the build-out cost for future exhibits
The design team was also mindful of ensuring that the exhibit infrastructure would support a variety of mediums, from visual displays to digital and physical interactives and even olfactory experiences. This variety invites learners of all types to engage in their preferred manner. In addition, the exhibit is also wholly bilingual, including audio assistance throughout the exhibition. In all areas of the design, we worked diligently to address a diverse audience and provide a platform of expression to the Latinx community.
Charged with designing a culturally specific gallery in the National Museum of American History Smithsonian, we understood that we needed to locate the design process within the cultural specificity of the project. Just like the curators that researched and spoke from the position of the Latinx experience, we deemed it necessary to align our efforts with the curatorial approach and locate the design process within the Latinx cultural and creative production.
As designers, the location of our design process within a cultural spectrum was a conceptual hurdle. Notions of cultural competency emerged, but the multivariable identity of the Latinx community made such positions laughable. The mix of the country of origin, social class, and race presented a fluidity of identity that would remain outside the boundaries of a cultural competency discourse. Also, notions of competency echoed the authority of expertise practiced in encyclopedic museums, reminding us of their colonial origin. A cadre of expert curators decides the canon. For these reasons, we sought to locate the design process within the transitory and fluid space shared by Latinx cultural stakeholders. For these reasons, we aim to co-create the gallery with the participation of many other Latinx creatives from around the whole nation.
Once we agreed on a co-creation approach, we launched the joyful task of summoning artisans, artists, media producers, and craftspersons to help us create the gallery. To name a few, we engaged Isabel Urbina (NY) to hand-letter all titles. David Marroquin (LA) helped design and forge the ironwork for the entrance and donor wall. Rafael López (San Diego) drew icons for a colorful chandelier and all the portraits used throughout the exhibit graphics. Verónica Castro (TX) produce a ceramic "Arbol de la Vida" (Tree of Life). Finally, Alberto Ferreras (NY) filmed and produced the movie Somos for our small theater in the gallery's center.
Several art direction concepts surfaced during this phase of commissioning artists and artisans, each with cultural ramifications. In the case of Rafael López, we asked him to draw portraits of noteworthy Latinx historical figures. Part of the motivation behind this decision was the importance of self-representation. Suppose the gallery itself is an act of self-representation where Latinx museum professionals tell American history through a Latinx focalization. We wished to continue this positioning in the art direction for all images used throughout the exhibit. All portraits were to be drawn by "us." Rafael drew over 80 portraits displayed in the exhibit panels and digital interactives.
We also borrowed art direction concepts from the architect David Adjaye. We liked his notion of "resignification" of materials and methods in construction. David Adjaye takes traditional means of building and transforms or uses them differently than originally intended. For us, the resignification of materials and procedures aligned with the transdisciplinary design and the acceptance of the fluidity of culture. We wanted to use Latinx material culture, yet steering away from a static expression and preferring a living method that can morph and adapt to new contexts. We did not wish to quote old materials and styles for nostalgic effect simply. Quoting would say that culture can stop in time. Instead, we allowed play and development of forms, such as the case of David Marroquin, who we hired to do the ironwork that decorates our entrance and donor wall. We collaged traditional figures of ironwork into bolder patterns and shapes that changed their aesthetic effect. In graphic design, resignification is also in Isabel Urbina's hand lettering for the exhibit titles. Our graphic design direction pursued the idea of making visual the focalization of the Latinx voice. Titles are the primary point of interaction with the visitor; hence we used Isabel's hand-lettering to give them texture and locate the typography in a Latino graphic tradition. Mid-century Puerto Rican silkscreen posters inspired Isabel. The effect is "resignification" as typographical branding.
Architecturally, we steered the design to support the project of co-creating the gallery. Like co-creation, the goal is to authenticate the gallery's voice as the work of Latinx museum professionals. To carry this through, we conceptualized the gallery as a "museum inside a museum." The gallery must carry an authorial and institutional stature. It is important to remember that the MFLG is inside the NMAH, along with many other galleries. We wanted MFLG to stand out as the Latinx voice. It must create a sense of place that locates that institutional voice to achieve this. Other galleries in NMAH are about stories. Ours is about a community. The floor plan of other galleries tends to follow a storyline. The floor plan of MFLG favors the experience of the place first, and from there, we tell a story. The plaza area is demonstrative of the place-making goal. It is a welcoming space to digitally "meet" Latinx people through public-history interactives. The experience of the plaza locates the visitor in a Latinx environment. It becomes clear that the story comes from the Latinx perspective.
Another way the gallery becomes "museum inside the museum" is with the presence of our own theAnother way the gallery becomes a "museum inside the museum" is with the presence of our own theater and education lounge. NMAH has an education area and an auditorium. We chose to have our facilities affirming the Latinx origin of all the programming. Visitors will meet Latinx educators in the Learning Lounge, surrounded by books in Spanish and commemoratively decorated with Rafael's colorful chandelier. The same happens in the Somos theater, where Latinx films are shown. The effect is that the Latinx voice is institutionally represented.
Accessibility to all gallery experiences was a clear directive from the leadership of NMAL stated during the project's kick-off meeting. Eduardo Diaz, the director of NMAL, understood inclusion in the broadest of terms. He also believed that if we were advocating for the inclusion of Latinx history as American history, it follows that we are inclusive to all our visitors. For that purpose, consultants from Institute for Human-Centered Design (IHCD) participated in the design process. They provided the design team with their expertise in all phases of design. They also organized four user/expert reviews of design mock-ups in various design stages. "A user/expert," as defined by IHCD, "is a person who has developed expertise by means of their lived experience in dealing with the challenges of the environment due to a physical, sensory, or cognitive functional limitation." With every user/expert review, we finessed our design decisions, from the consistent placement of exhibit elements to the lighting of artifacts and the space available for the more recent models of wheeled mobility. All types of situations were identified, reviewed, and adjusted for better use and access.
Apart from a situational focus, we also examined the design from an architectural scale. The gallery plan considers the circulation of people with low visibility or who are blind. With this group in mind, we created a perimeter circulation by placing large wall cases housing the bulk of the artifacts. In this way, we contour what is known as a shoreline for navigating space using a mobility cane. People may tap or follow this edge to move around the exhibit. The plaza at the gallery's center allows for open circulation, but we provide a tactile path for this group of users. In addition, we placed floor cues in relief for cane tapping that indicate the location of raised panels with a QR code that offers an audio description. We initially thought that QR codes were not accessible to everyone. However, thanks to the user/expert reviews, we discovered that they are accessible and are part of a growing trend to allow access to audio files. QR code audio instruction is offered online in a pre-visit section and at the gallery entrance.
We also drew a sensory plan where we mapped the impact of noise due to the use of digital media. The sensory map made clear the need for noise reduction. We applied acoustical absorbing materials throughout the gallery, including perforated wood baffles above the plaza. The result is noticeable "tight" acoustics that decreases noise and echoes. This acoustical environment helps people with hearing impairment or people sensitive to loudness. It also helps everyone else because the media experiences do not have sound spills interfering with the media in other zones. We found that design decisions that were made for the sake of accessibility were, in fact, beneficial to all.
Overall the design of the Molina Family Latino Gallery has been a milestone in our process. Many of the ideas and methods are foundational to our design approach. Fortunately, an inspired client helped us make a decisive stride forward. Just like the trend for sustainable design has impacted the design field, we believe that a transdisciplinary approach to cultural inclusivity and accessibility for people of all gifts and needs will also affect the design field in unforetold ways.