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Difference Maker

The man behind the Smithsonian’s new African-American history museum

breaking barriers

Lonnie Bunch shares his love of history as the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opens in Washington Sept. 24.

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    The National Museum of African American History and Culture, of which Lonnie Bunch is founding director, opens Sept. 24.
    David Karas
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Even as a youth, Lonnie Bunch was captivated by history.

“The desire to learn, the desire to understand, was really sort of embedded in everything we did,” says Mr. Bunch, who is the son of educators.

When his family moved from Newark, N.J., to the nearby community of Belleville, they were one of only a few black families in town, and the only one in their neighborhood. Still today, Bunch remembers being treated “wonderfully” by some, yet “horribly” by others.

The inquisitive teen naturally turned to history for an answer. “History, for me, became a tool to help me understand my own life,” he says. “But I also realized that if a nation understands its history, it is a wonderful tool to help a nation figure out how they live their lives, how to understand the conditions they face.”

That embrace of history – as a tool not only to understand the past, but to deal with the present and look toward the future – continues to drive Bunch in his current role as founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), which opens in Washington Sept. 24.

Established by an act of Congress in 2003, the museum is on the National Mall, in the shadow of the Washington Monument. It is the newest installment of the Smithsonian Institution, and the only one to be devoted to showcasing the life, history, and culture of the African-American community.

Bunch is in his 11th year in this stint at the Smithsonian – a period that has challenged him to do everything from helping to select a site for the museum to raising some $540 million in funds and gathering a collection of artifacts befitting the world-renowned network of museums and galleries.

It is an “amazing” task to establish a new Smithsonian museum, something that occurs “once in a generation,” says Richard Kurin, the institution’s acting provost and undersecretary for museums and research.

“You need someone who can envision a museum and bring it to fruition both from a scholarly and curatorial level,” says Mr. Kurin, who describes Bunch as a visionary. “He is so much the right person for this particular job.... You would be hard-pressed to find someone else who could do this, and to do this on a national stage that is fraught with so many issues.”

Bunch’s quest to learn more history when he was a teen was not without problems. “As I began to go to a public library I would pick up great books, but there was never anything on African-Americans other than George Washington Carver,” he says. “Here is another part of history that is somehow being left out.”

‘The Smithsonian is where you take dates’

Bunch never aspired to work in a museum. The prospect arose when he was a graduate student at American University in Washington, and a colleague connected him with a Smithsonian leader.

“The Smithsonian is where you take dates, because it’s free,” Bunch, chuckling, recalls thinking to himself. “I didn’t realize what a big deal it was.”

He was offered a job at the National Air and Space Museum, which he credits with launching his career in museums. He went on to work for what was then the California Afro-American Museum in Los Angeles before returning to the Smithsonian and holding various positions at the National Museum of American History.

In 2001, Bunch became president of the Chicago Historical Society, where he led a successful capital campaign, launched outreach initiatives for various communities, and managed a reorganization in which one result was a new name for the institution: the Chicago History Museum.

“Chicago helped me realize that this vision I had of history being important wasn’t just a naive thought,” he says. “Chicago is a city that cares about its history.”

Joy Bivins, director of curatorial affairs at the Chicago History Museum, points out the many contributions that Bunch made there, including Teen Chicago – a program that was designed to enhance interest in history among youths – not to mention that he was the institution’s first African-American director.

Ms. Bivins also praises what he has undertaken in Washington. “He has already brought tenacity, charisma, and a passion for the history of African-Americans to the project,” she says. “There is so much excitement around the opening of the NMAAHC in September, and he is a big part of creating that excitement and cultivating it.”

Bunch admits that it was difficult to leave Chicago for his current post.

“Being the president of the [Chicago Historical Society] really nurtured my soul,” he says. “But coming back to do this would nurture the soul of all my ancestors. So in a way, there was no choice.”

On a cruise ... while the ship is being built

Under Bunch’s leadership, the NMAAHC quickly became a museum well before the planned opening on the Mall – with traveling exhibitions and artifacts on display in the National Museum of American History.

All the while, Bunch has been confronted with an array of tasks amid developments like the Great Recession. “I would almost describe it as going on a cruise at the same time you are building the ship,” he says.

Bunch’s role has also required him to articulate its purpose to constituencies ranging from Congress to various religious communities, says Smithsonian acting provost Kurin. And it has involved building a collection, often one item at a time. “That means going to a place like Charleston, S.C., [and] meeting with folks who have stuff in their basement, attic, trunk,” he says.

Museum officials are now setting display cases throughout the distinctive building and installing artifacts – including the hymnal Harriet Tubman carried and the shawl given to her by Queen Victoria. Inaugural exhibitions broach a variety of topics such as slavery, Reconstruction, military history, sports, and music.

S. Howard Woodson III, former president of the Alexandria, Va., branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, America’s oldest civil rights organization, describes Bunch as playing a “phenomenal” role. He also expresses keen anticipation for the museum opening.

“It just gives us a place where we can go and find out about the history of African-Americans,” he says. “It is going to be monumental, especially in the last year of the first African-American president.”

Understanding ‘what it means to be an American’

In a recent conversation with the Monitor in his northwest Washington home, Bunch discussed his lifelong desire to “make visible the anonymous” and to harness the capacity of history to help others.

“It is this tension between the joy of history,” he says, “and then using that as a weapon, as a tool, as a way to better understand who we are – to provide contextualization, and maybe on good days, a little healing and reconciliation.”

The NMAAHC, he says, uses “history and culture as a lens to understand what it means to be an American.”

He adds, “This is not a story by black people for black people. This is the story that has profoundly shaped all of us.”

He relishes the opportunity for the museum to be a “convener” and to facilitate conversation about everything from the historic civil rights movement to Black Lives Matter. “The museum is as much about today and tomorrow as it is about yesterday,” he says.

Bunch also acknowledges the opportunity that the museum has in light of recent events.

“Race is the last great unmentionable in many ways: We talk about it, but we don’t talk about it,” he says. “The Smithsonian is this amazing place where people will grapple with issues and ideas that they won’t in other places.... Because it is the Smithsonian, we have the chance to be one of the greatest educational opportunities in America to help Americans grapple with what has divided them.”

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