The Smithsonian today named Lonnie G. Bunch III as the 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Bunch is the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), a position he has held since 2005. Prior to that, Bunch served as the president of the Chicago Historical Society. He succeeds David J. Skorton as secretary and will be the first African-American to hold the position.
In a Smithsonian press release announcing the new appointment, Bunch said, “I am excited to work with the Board of Regents and my colleagues throughout the Institution to build upon its legacy and to ensure that the Smithsonian will be even more relevant and more meaningful and reach more people in the future.”
Bunch was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1952 and attended Washington, D.C.’s Howard University, before transferring to American University where he earned his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in American History and African History. His ascent at the Smithsonian includes posts as historian, curator and director. The opening of NMAAHC in 2016 represented a monumental achievement for the Smithsonian, one accomplished thanks to the Herculean efforts of Bunch.
In the Smithsonian press release, John G. Roberts, Jr., the Chief Justice of the United States and Smithsonian chancellor, said, “Lonnie Bunch guided, from concept to completion, the complex effort to build the premier museum celebrating African American achievements.”
“This is a great moment for America,” says Kinshasha Holman Conwill, NMAAHC’s deputy director. “It’s really the validation of the concept of what it means to achieve in this country. But the main thing is that this is one of the most distinguished historians on the planet. It’s a great moment for the humanities because for someone steeped in history to run this Institution, it’s so exciting. It’s hard for me to put in words. There’s no one on earth I admire more.”
It was the former Apollo 11 astronaut Mike Collins, the director of the National Air and Space Museum at the time, who first brought Bunch to the Smithsonian, hiring him as a historian at the museum in the 1970s. In 1983, Bunch moved across the country to become the first curator at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles. But in 1989, the Smithsonian once again beckoned Bunch back with an offer to join the curatorial staff of the National Museum of American History, where he served for five years, collecting one of the museum’s most iconic artifacts, the Greensboro Lunch Counter, and curating one of it most popular ongoing exhibitions, “The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden.” In 2000, he left the Smithsonian again to become the president of the Chicago Historical Society.
“In college and graduate school I trained as an urban historian, specializing in the 19th century. And while I taught history at several universities, I fell in love with museums, especially the Smithsonian Institution. I like to say that I am the only person who left the Smithsonian twice—and returned,” he wrote.
At the American History Museum, director Roger Kennedy, known for his ambition and brash manner, became Bunch’s mentor, teaching him how to navigate a bureaucratic operation and instilling in him the tools for leadership. If you stick to official channels, Bunch recalled Kennedy telling him, progress will be glacial. Despite sometimes biting off more than he could chew, Kennedy made the museum “a great place of possibility,” Bunch recalled. “He brought forward ideas.”
When Bunch got the nod in 2005 to become the director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, he was staggered by the overwhelming task, noting with characteristic self-effacement in an essay for Smithsonian magazine that all that was left yet to do “was to articulate a vision, hire a staff, find a site, amass a collection where there was none, get a building designed and constructed, ensure that more than $500 million could be raised from private and public sources, ease the apprehension among African-American museums nationwide by demonstrating how all museums would benefit by the creation of NMAAHC, learn to work with one of the most powerful and influential boards of any cultural institution and answer all the arguments—rational and otherwise—that this museum was unnecessary.”
In little more than a decade, Bunch accomplished his list, bringing together dozens of influential curators and educators, amassing a collection of more than 35,000 artifacts housed in a 400,000-square-foot world class, $540 million, LEED-certified museum on the National Mall and within sight lines of the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Last week, the museum, in partnership with the Alabama Historical Commission and SEARCH Inc., a group of maritime archaeologists and divers, authenticated and confirmed the finding of one of America’s last known slave ships. The Clotilda, arrived illegally in the United States in 1860, long after international slave trade was banned, enslaving 109 Africans from the Kingdom of Dahomey. Working closely with a community of the ship’s descendants still living together in Africatown, Alabama, the museum is working to preserve their history and the story of the Clotilda.
Spencer Crew, a former director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, will be the interim director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
We spoke with Bunch soon after the announcement was made; our conversation was lightly edited and condensed.
The national museum that you run, devoted to the African-American experience, took decades to come to fruition. As for a Latino museum or a women’s history museum, do you see the Smithsonian growing still larger under your time as secretary?
As a historian, my whole career has been about expanding the canon, about making sure that you understand that the only way you can understand America are through these different lenses—the Latino community, through issues of gender, through African-Americans. So, I’m very supportive of the notion that the Smithsonian needs to engage these issues. I think for many things, though, we’ll wait to see where Congress takes us. The other things though that I’m really proud of, is that the Smithsonian Latino Center has been around for 20 years. That we’ve wrestled this year with an initiative to honor women’s history. So even though Congress has to decide what it wants to do, we will raise these issues, we will make sure they’re integrated throughout the Smithsonian. So that regardless of whether there is a structure or not, you can come to the Smithsonian, and understand a fuller history of America.
In expanding those audiences, the Smithsonian is talking about engaging with 1 billion people online, in addition to bringing them here to the brick-and-mortar museums. Do you see that digital initiative as a vital effort? How will the Smithsonian get there?
I love the notion of the boldness of a billion engaged visitors. The issue really is, one: You’ve got to look at both the tension between tradition and innovation. On the one hand, we’ve got to do the best job we can in Washington. Expand our educational outreach, make sure that the exhibitions are such that the public views us as a pilgrimage, not to check off, but a pilgrimage to help them understand themselves. I think if we do that, that will increase our visitation.
It’s going to be important to create something I call the “Virtual Smithsonian.” Something that says not the virtual Museum of America History or the virtual Museum of African American History, but the virtual Smithsonian. We have the most amazing assets—our scholarship, our collections, the history of what we’ve done. How would we reinvent that in a world without bricks and mortar? Whether it is done simply by category, whether it’s looking at issues of democracy or innovation—I don’t have the answers to that. But I think that one of the things that I want to see during my tenure, is a virtual Smithsonian that is as rich, that is as honored, that is as complicated as the bricks-and-mortar Smithsonian.
The #Museumsarenotneutral movement has been galvanizing for many within the museum community, including many of the industry’s younger leaders. What does that phrase mean to you?
It’s crucially important for museums to open the veil, of how they do the work they do so that even they understand the complicit biases they carry. They understand the cultural baggage that shapes what we do. I’ve never forgotten when I came back to the Smithsonian in 1989 and was trying to do an exhibition on slavery, and there wasn’t anything. I mean I was dumbfounded that the national museum wouldn’t have that. Well it really was because there wasn’t that conscious decision to understand how we tell a fuller story. So, I’m very comfortable with that notion. whether it’s by younger museum professionals or whether it’s by people who’ve wrestled with issues of race and ethnicity. It’s crucially important to recognize that if we’re going to engage the audiences, if we’re going to be places of value, then it’s crucial that we understand who we are and who we aren’t.
In 2016, at the opening of the African-American History Museum you wrote that your goal had been to create a museum that modeled the nation: “A nation that was diverse, that was fair, that was always struggling to make itself better, to perfect itself by living up to the ideals in our founding documents.” Given the challenges that the United States is facing in this moment, how will you model this goal afresh in your new position?
I think that’s still my vision, so nothing has changed. The Smithsonian’s got to realize that we know that everything we do is often political. It means that we make decisions, we [create] exhibitions carefully, based on scholarship. One of our greatest strengths at the museum that I helped to create was that we recognized we had to be conversive with Congress. We had to let the [Smithsonian] Regents know. We had to work the media. We had to recognize that being right isn’t enough.
You’ve got to recognize that in a national museum, you’ve got to build the allies and the support. My sense is that anything we do can be criticized by somebody, is political to somebody. The key is to do the right thing, and then to build the kind of relationships that allow you to do the presentations you want. That doesn’t mean you’re not going to get beat up; you’re going to get beat up anyway. So you might as well do the work that’s important but also make sure that you build the alliances to protect you.
Speaking of important work, the soon-to-open “Hall of Fossils—Deep Time” exhibition at the National Museum of Natural History includes models showing that man-made climate change puts much of the National Mall at risk for flooding in the years to come. What role do you think this Smithsonian could take in combating the severity of the climate crisis, to come?
What’s important is that people look to the Smithsonian for guidance, for information, for clarity. So, part of what this exhibition does is to help people understand the challenges that really face us. Our goal is not to sort of make a strong argument, but to suggest to people, here’s what’s facing us based on scientific evidence. And hopefully engage the public to grapple with the challenge that faces them. It’s important for every aspect of the Smithsonian to think about how does it help the American public understand itself and its world.
Do you have any last thoughts?
I just think that for me, there’s nothing like the Smithsonian. What I want is, I want the audiences to feel the passion, the commitment, the love I have for the Smithsonian. The Smithsonian is one of the most wondrous things in the world, and sometimes we forget that.