Lonnie Bunch III Takes Helm Of The Smithsonian: 'I Feel The Weight Of History'

Jun 12, 2019
Originally published on June 13, 2019 9:40 am

Lonnie Bunch III's interest in the past began with an incomplete story. His grandfather, a sharecropper-turned-dentist, would read history books to him, and Bunch would wonder why the pictures of black children contained little detail — why the captions simply read "unknown children" or "anonymous."

The founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Bunch has dedicated his life to telling a fuller, rounder and more complex historical narrative. He'll continue that mission in taking the reins of the entire Smithsonian Institution as its first African American secretary, overseeing 19 museums, 21 libraries and the National Zoo.

"It is crucially important for the Smithsonian to recognize it has an obligation to help America understand the fullness of itself, not just a portion of itself," Bunch tells NPR's Steve Inskeep.

When he assumes the position on June 16, he will become the first black person to lead the Smithsonian, and also the first historian to become secretary.

Bunch's philosophy is best evidenced by his leadership and curation at the NMAAHC. When the museum was first announced, some critics called the project a Balkanization of history, splintering the national narrative. He counters that more perspectives are necessary to piece together a coherent narrative.

"One of the great strengths of the Smithsonian is that we have different portals into what it means to be an American," Bunch says. "You can understand that through the American Art Museum or through the Air and Space Museum or American History Museum."

Transitioning to the head of the Smithsonian's leadership team, Bunch aims to maintain this approach centered on diversity and nuance.

"I think the biggest goal of history at the Smithsonian ought to be to help the American public embrace ambiguity to understand that there's not simple answers to complex questions," Bunch says. "And if we can help the public become comfortable with wrestling with the shades of gray then we've really made a contribution."

Whether or not that means the Smithsonian will expand its offerings to include museums dedicated to women or Asian Americans is up to Congress, Bunch says. Nonetheless, he's focused on telling a compelling historical story that resonates with all visitors and excludes no one.

Lonnie Bunch, the first historian to lead the Smithsonian, says he aims to engage the general public in "wrestling with the shades of gray" and to "embrace ambiguity."
Shuran Huang / NPR

Beyond diversifying the content and artifacts within the Smithsonian's vast halls, Bunch also wants to broaden its mediums.

"The Smithsonian is a place that helps you understand the traditions of the country but also helps you understand innovation and the possibilities of the future," Bunch says.

Increasing technology and virtual exhibits is partially motivated by accessibility. Bunch says he wants the Smithsonian's resources to be available to all — not just those who walk through the doors of a museum.

Outgoing secretary David J. Skorton and his predecessor Wayne Clough were both university presidents, selected in part for their skills in fundraising. Bunch's appointment was certainly aided by his proven skill at raising funds for the creation of the NMAAHC.

But Bunch also has deep history with the Smithsonian. Years before he assumed leadership at the NMAAHC, Bunch worked as an associate director and curator at the Museum of American History and as a historian at the Air and Space Museum.

"The reason I took the job is that the Smithsonian transformed my life," Bunch says. "It's the place I care most about. It's where I met my wife. My kids went to preschool here. It's a place where any job I've ever had is because of my time at the Smithsonian.

"For me there's something wondrous about the Smithsonian ... [it's] the place of my dreams."

Bunch is not taking his new job responsibilities lightly. Asked about the meaning of his new post, he responded: "I feel the weight of history."

Josh Axelrod is the NPR Digital Content intern.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The other day, we stood among the tourists outside a museum in Washington.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Line up by the bushes, guys.

INSKEEP: It's the National Museum of African American History and Culture, part of the Smithsonian Institution. We had an appointment inside and went upstairs to the office of museum director Lonnie Bunch.

Hey.

LONNIE BUNCH: Hey.

INSKEEP: How are you?

BUNCH: Good to see you. You doing OK?

INSKEEP: Steve Inskeep.

BUNCH: Sure, sure.

INSKEEP: Yeah. Nice to meet you.

BUNCH: My pleasure. If you let me send out this email...

INSKEEP: Please, do that. Do that.

BUNCH: Eli Broad. You always get email back from (ph) Eli Broad.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

The California billionaire had emailed Lonnie Bunch with a message of congratulations because, after overseeing the creation of this, the newest of the Smithsonian's many museums, Lonnie Bunch has been promoted to run them all.

When's your first day, by the way?

BUNCH: (Laughter) Seems like it's already started.

INSKEEP: He formally starts as secretary of the Smithsonian next week, moving to a new office, although it will be hard to leave this one.

What a view.

BUNCH: This is the best view in Washington, in fact...

INSKEEP: His windows overlook the National Mall - the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials, the Washington Monument.

BUNCH: And then the airport so I know when my planes are going to be late.

INSKEEP: At least one part of the office decoration is sure to go with Lonnie Bunch to his new location.

BUNCH: So this is the photograph that I found.

INSKEEP: A black-and-white picture from the 1800s showing a woman who was once enslaved. She's a farmworker standing in a field.

BUNCH: But her head is up, and she's moving forward. And that always gave me the inspiration that, if she didn't quit, I can't quit.

INSKEEP: He kept going for more than a decade, as he oversaw the completion of the African American history museum. Now he becomes the first African American to direct all 19 museums in the Smithsonian, along with its 21 libraries and the National Zoo. His association with the Smithsonian goes back to the 1960s, when he was a kid.

BUNCH: We were traveling from New Jersey, where I grew up, to visit my mother's family in North Carolina. So we'd pass these signs for museums in Virginia and Maryland. And I'd always say to my dad, let's stop, and he always had a reason - we can't. We got to stop for gas later. We couldn't do these things. And he never stopped. And so I remember coming back, thinking I'm going to really be smart; I'm going to sort of give him 20-miles notice so we could stop, and he never did.

But he pulled into Washington, D.C., and he parked in front of the Smithsonian, and he said, here's a place you can go where you won't be turned away by the color of your skin. And I never forgot what the Smithsonian meant to this kid. It meant America at its best. It meant freedom it meant knowledge. It meant a place where, when the rest of the country wasn't fair, the Smithsonian was.

INSKEEP: As an adult, he's worked multiple Smithsonian jobs. One was at the National Museum of American history, which is right across the street from the African American history museum. Their collections are different.

We can go through this museum and find slave chains. We can go across the street and see the famous Star-Spangled Banner, that giant flag. But we know that Francis Scott Key, the guy who wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner," was a slave owner. How does the story told their fit with the story told here?

BUNCH: I think what's wonderful is that we're really looking at the same coin from many different sides. Because I think the biggest goal of history at the Smithsonian ought to be to help the American public embrace ambiguity. And so by going to the portrait gallery and understanding how they look at the notions of liberty and freedom - come to American history, suddenly you're getting to understand that America is this unbelievably complex place. And if we can help the public become comfortable with wrestling with the shades of gray, then we've really made a contribution.

INSKEEP: So we've talked a lot about diversity here. We're in a museum that is an expression of that. There's the National Museum of the American Indian just within sight. Are there more museums of that sort that are needed?

BUNCH: I think that there is a desire to build on the complexity and understanding of America, whether it's issues of the Latino community, a story of gender issues. I think that it's really up to Congress to give us guidance on how they'd like to see the Smithsonian move forward.

INSKEEP: You must have sometimes heard the concern expressed by some people that there might be a fragmented national narrative, that we're splitting it up into too many stories of too many groups and losing sight of the whole. Is there anything to that?

BUNCH: So the Balkanization of American history, right? My sense is that, because we have these different portals into what it means to be an American, we're just giving you different ways to understand it.

INSKEEP: Do you feel you have a definition of success for your new job?

BUNCH: One is to recognize that the Smithsonian needs to be better positioned to serve its 21st-century audiences. I also think it's crucially important that, if the Smithsonian really is to be of value, then it's also got to be a place that is willing to wrestle with contemporary concerns, to contextualize - whether it's science or the arts or history - to help people think about how do we help understand questions around race, around environmentalism, globalization?

INSKEEP: Do you mean to say you want to be giving a historical perspective on the news?

BUNCH: What I want to do is be able to contextualize the world we live in, a world where ambiguity is something you become more comfortable with.

INSKEEP: I'm just - there have been so many news items in the last few years that have had some relation to history, and sometimes it's very direct, like the riot in which someone was killed over a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, Va. Sometimes it's more abstract. But it's about race. It's about what America was, what America is or should be. Do you think this institution can give people direct resources to think about those problems?

BUNCH: I think that the Smithsonian is a tool. And we want to make sure that we're educating and helping people as they're wrestling with life.

INSKEEP: There must be Confederate artifacts somewhere in your collections.

BUNCH: There are. One of the things we're wrestling with now is what Confederate statue do I collect that was taken down somewhere?

INSKEEP: Are people offering? Like, we took down our Robert E. Lee; would you like it? That sort of thing?

BUNCH: People know me, and they'll call.

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

BUNCH: And I think that part of what is important is to collect for tomorrow. You may not use them. But I don't ever want anybody to experience what I did early in my career, where I'd open drawers and there's nothing that could help me tell the stories I wanted to tell. So part of what I'm thinking about is, yes, I look back - what do you need to collect? But also, what are things that somebody can use going forward, 50 years from now?

INSKEEP: What's it mean to you to be the first African American to take over the Smithsonian?

BUNCH: It is very humbling. I feel the weight of history. I understand what this means. And my goal is to use that to bring the visibility to the Smithsonian. And like that image that I pointed to you in a very early point, I want to be able to be somebody that helps people feel comfortable about who they are and give people inspiration that they can wrestle with this wherever they live.

INSKEEP: Lonnie Bunch, in his final days directing the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History. He starts next week in his new job as secretary of the Smithsonian.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANGEL BAT DAWID'S "DESTINATION (DR. YUSEF LATEEF)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.