Lonnie Bunch launched a nationwide fundraising campaign to fulfill a century-old “fitful and frustrated” effort to establish a museum dedicated to the life and legacy of African-American history and culture in Washington, D.C. Such luminaries as Congressman John Lewis and the late Congressman Mickey Leland of Texas, resurrected the effort in the early ’80s. However, it was not until 2003 following a report from a commission appointed by President George W. Bush which led to the passage of the law authorizing the establishment of the National Museum of African America History and Culture (NMAAHC) that the long-held collective dream finally became a reality.
Bunch writes that upon being appointed as the museum’s director, all the position required was to “articulate a vision, hire a staff, find a site, amass a collection, get a building designed and constructed, ensure that more than $500 million could be raised … ease apprehension among African-American museums that they all would benefit from the NMAAHC, learn to work with one of the most powerful and influential boards of any cultural institution and answer all arguments — rational and otherwise.” And, in the beginning as Bunch traveled the country to solicit support, all he had to share were a few pieces of paper and a strong, convincing message.
Bunch’s success has been well documented since the NMAAHC officially opened in 2016 with more than 600,000 visitors, reportedly, in the first three months. It has proven to be one of the most popular museums in the Smithsonian complex and probably has the most diverse staff of all of the museums.
For these reasons and many others, Lonnie Bunch is the right choice to be named the 14th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, a position he will assume on June 16. He is the first African American to head the Smithsonian since it was founded in 1846, which includes 19 museums, the National Zoo and nine research centers.
The heavy load Bunch has carried won’t get any lighter as he strives to right the ship at the Smithsonian that is laden with an array of challenges including complaints of discrimination across the board. It will be a new day at the Smithsonian and not only a test of Bunch’s already proven fortitude but also of his ability to successfully revise a culture at the Smithsonian — a change in direction and philosophy that’s long overdue.