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Mariano Desmaras: A Multicultural Approach to Museums

When Mariano Desmaras (BFA 89) first came to the University of Michigan from Puerto Rico, he didn’t quite know what career path he was going to take. He chose U‑M because it had it all,” becoming immersed in English, design, and architecture.

The front entrance of the Molino Family Latino Gallery at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. A group of people are walking in the space.
Molino Family Latino Gallery at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, designed by Mariano Desmaras’ (BFA 89) firm, Museum Environments. Photo by Mariano Desmaras
Headshot of Mariano Desmaras
Mariano Desmaras

Desmaras always loved art. He regularly attended drawing classes at the D’esopo Gallery in Puerto Rico and watched his mother paint on Sundays.

By elementary school, Desmaras was already immersed in three different cultures. As a child, Desmaras lived in Puerto Rico with his parents, who immigrated from Argentina. He also attended an American school. 

Desmaras also spent time as an editorial graphic designer in Paris, France. His variety of experiences with cultural environments helps him better understand diversity within the Latinx community – and across the world. 

My heritage and upbringing is my visual culture. The way that I see the world is because of that lens,” Desmaras said. But I have emigrated to loads of different places. I also worked in Europe for a while. Because I’ve done that, I see a fluidity in culture. I’m able to perceive different perspectives within the same artwork.” 

Journey to the University of Michigan

Once Desmaras followed his father’s footsteps and attended U‑M, new doors and career paths were opened. After originally planning to study pre-medicine, Desmaras pursued an English major at the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. Thanks to a surplus of different programs and classes, Desmaras came across a drawing course at the School of Art & Design, now known as the Stamps School. He was instantly reminded of his love of art, and received a BFA

Michigan had it all. When I went to the University of Michigan, the world of arts sort of opened up for me,” Desmaras said. Thanks to the art school, I really saw the possibilities of doing design and art as a career.”

It was a color theory class taught by Vincent Castagnacci that still resonates with Desmaras, over 30 years later.

I really learned the notion of visual analysis, and I still do that when choosing my colors in my work. I carry it through color, typography, and design,” Desmaras said.

Desmaras brings his perspective to multiple platforms to study how design can advance audience inclusion in museums. He is the former Chair of the Latino Network of AAM and has lectured at the Smithsonian Latino Center.

Before founding his own firm, Desmaras worked for five years with Ralph Appelbaum Associates and other award-winning design firms, including the Rockwell Group. His work has received numerous top design awards, most notably from the American Institute of Graphics Arts (AIGA), Type Directors Club and Society of Environmental Graphic Design.

Desmaras brings a diverse skill set to his practice. His dual degrees of Graphic Design and English at U‑M have merged seamlessly with a Masters degree in Architecture from Columbia University in New York. The result is a display of rich storytelling.

I can bring out the story that the curator is trying to tell,” Desmaras said. And my English major kind of sinks in, because what are you designing as a graphic designer? You’re designing stories. There is a narrative. You can link the two.”

What are you designing as a graphic designer? You’re designing stories. There is a narrative. You can link the two.”

Observers few the Molino Family Latino Gallery objects in a glass display. Screens contain text in both English and Spanish languages.
Molino Family Latino Gallery at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, designed by Mariano Desmaras’ (BFA 89) firm, Museum Environments, is a bilingual experience. Photo by Mariano Desmaras

Museums and Multiculturalism

Desmaras found a passion for designing museum environments with a multicultural approach.

He founded Museum Environments, a firm that specializes in multicultural and bilingual exhibits. The firm most recently designed the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s new Molina Family Latino Gallery, the first ever Latinx gallery in the museum. 

The 4,500-square-foot gallery, dedicated to Latinx history and culture, is a precursor to the National Museum of the American Latino and will present bilingual stories for multigenerational and cross-cultural audiences featuring multimedia, physical objects, and first-person voices. 

The gallery’s inaugural exhibition, ¡Presente! A Latino History of the United States is an introduction to critical concepts, moments, and biographies that shine a light on the historical and cultural legacy of U.S. Latinas and Latinos, exploring how Latino History is American History.” 

For Desmaras, the gallery gives back to the Latinx community and is a way to advocate for a cause he strongly believes in. 

Latinx history and culture is American history and culture,” Desmaras said. There is a social dimension to this work that is very motivating.” 

Latinx history and culture is American history and culture.”

The project was extra meaningful to Desmaras’ design team, as many of the members involved have Latinx or Latin American origins.

It was kind of a dream project that came true,” Desmaras said. I feel a sense of pride among my other Latinx colleagues as well, because there’s a sense of stakeholdership between everybody. This exhibit represents something about their culture, and Latinx culture is very diverse in itself.” 

As the owner and creative director of Museum Environments, Desmaras plays into an interdisciplinary” way of designing. Artists, designers, and artisans that are cultural stake-holders of the Latinx community were invited to participate in the design process. 

I brought in illustrators and hand-letterers in designing the gallery. This way, we’re also able to express the sort of diversity within Latinx culture.”

Desmaras and his firm specialize in multicultural and bilingual exhibits, with accessibility as a key goal. Desmaras says that multilingual exhibits can aim to unite, and not segregate bilingual families who are experiencing a museum.

Around 21% of households in the United States speak another language other than English at home. A bilingual exhibit is a way of inviting folks in,” Desmaras said. What happens often is that non-English speaking family members might go to an exhibit with their English-speaking kids, and you don’t want to segregate them. You want to keep them together, reading simultaneously.” 

Desmaras says that even in the digital age, museum environments are still a viable career path for aspiring artists. 

People will still want to go see things and new places. If you’re a graphic designer, you can do that through museum environments,” Desmaras said. 

Desmaras points to the purpose of his work that is most rewarding.

Each project has its own demographic, its location, its mission, and its purpose. The Latinx exhibits have sort of innovated a way of integrative design,” Desmaras said. It wasn’t until I was doing museum exhibits that I just sort of fell in love with that work.” 

Story by Katelyn Stuck.