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Smithsonian names founding director for National Museum of the American Latino

Jorge Zamanillo, executive director and CEO of HistoryMiami Museum, will step into the new role in the spring for the highly anticipated national museum.

The Smithsonian Institution has named Jorge Zamanillo as the founding director of the upcoming National Museum of the American Latino.

Zamanillo, a trained archeologist who later began his career as a curator at at community-based museum in Miami, will assume the role May 2, the Smithsonian Institution said in a news release Friday.

Image: Jorge Zamanillo.
Jorge Zamanillo.Smithsonian Institution

“It is an honor to be chosen to lead the development of this museum as the founding director,” Zamanillo, 52, said in a statement. “The Latino experience is American history, and I want to make sure our story will be preserved for future generations.”

“This museum will celebrate Latino accomplishments and resiliency through powerful stories that capture the adversity faced over centuries by Latinos in the U.S. and their perseverance to move forward and create a legacy,” he added.

Zamanillo began working at the HistoryMiami Museum in 2000 as the curator of object collections. There, he worked on exhibitions highlighting Latino history such as “Tropical Dreams: A People’s History of Southern Florida” and “Operation Pedro Pan: The Cuban Children’s Exodus.”

Before becoming the museum's CEO, Zamanillo held several other leadership positions — including deputy director, vice president of expansion projects and senior curator.

As CEO, Zamanillo manages the daily operations of the museum with a $6.2 million budget and led its $45 million expansion project between 2015 and 2016.

“The decision to choose a director who is already so deeply involved in lifting up American Latino history, and who also has a keen understanding of the fundraising that will be required, is a great one,” Estuardo Rodriguez, of the organization Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino, said in a statement. The group has long supported the museum's creation.

Building the national Latino museum from scratch is expected to cost between $600 million and $800 million; half of the funding will come from Congress and the other half from private fundraising. Museum supporters say they’ll have to raise about $350 million to $400 million.

The opening of the national Latino museum could take about eight to 12 years. While Congress approved its creation in December 2020, the museum still lacks a budget, a building and art collections.

Zamanillo was born in New York City to Cuban parents and grew up in Miami. He earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology at Florida State University and a master’s in museum studies at the University of Leicester in England.

“His transformational leadership will be invaluable as we build this necessary museum from the ground up, helping us create a robust, dynamic, responsive museum that exemplifies what a 21st-century cultural institution should be,” Lonnie G. Bunch III, secretary of the Smithsonian, said in a statement.

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