At 66, Lonnie Bunch has long carved out a place in history.
The founding director and driving force behind what’s easily the most popular Smithsonian museum — the National Museum of African American History and Culture — and a renowned go-getter, Bunch is preparing to become the Smithsonian’s 14th secretary.
On June 15, when his appointment takes effect, Bunch will be the first African American to hold that position in the institution’s 173-year history.
“Well, I am obviously humbled and honored and I realize that the Smithsonian is the place that I love the most,” Bunch recently told The Washington Informer. “To be honest, after building with a great team the National Museum of African American History and Culture, this was my chance to give back to the institution.”
Born and raised in New Jersey, Bunch has spent the majority of his adult life as a history museum curator and administrator. He once served as president and director of the Chicago History Museum and he was the first curator at the California African American Museum.
Bunch received a bachelor’s degree in African-American history in 1974 and a master’s degree in American history two years later from American University in northwest D.C.
With overwhelming popularity, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) continues to thrive and Bunch said his goal remains to encourage an inclusive audience at all Smithsonian properties.
“[The museum] is really in some ways a glue that helps to hold things and African Americans, Asian Americans and all visitors really get a chance to understand,” he said. “Maybe the most important impact of the museum is that people of all races, political points of view, economic status, all come together and sometimes they debate but often what they do is marvel at the history and they share their own stories.”
Such dialogue is what Bunch said envisioned.
“What I want is for the Smithsonian to be that place where everybody comes and learns about science and the environment or understand the world of technology and how the challenges of diversity in this country go hand in hand,” he said.
Bunch said everyone involved knew that importance of the museum.
“The staff did better than I could ever have imagined,” he said. “So I knew it was going to be something people would pay attention to, but I didn’t realize that it would become the touchstone of many generations.”
The future of the museum and all of Smithsonian’s properties is bright, Bunch said. A national search will begin in earnest for his NMAAHC replacement but the museum remains in good hands with a strong board.
With powerful individuals such as Oprah Winfrey contributing, there are plans to continue to enhance the experience at NMAAHC, Bunch said.
“We’re about to open a show in the fall on the first African American to participate in World War I and there’s a lot of new things that are going on,” he said. “But I think the thing you want to remember about the Smithsonian is that people come to see the touchstone. So, you never want them to not be able to see Chuck Berry’s Cadillac or Harriet Tubman’s shawl. So, part of the tension is, what can you change?”
Bunch said his mission moving forward is to make sure people understand the wonders of the Smithsonian.
“I want to hold the Smithsonian to the highest standard when it comes to diversity and inclusion and excellence in the way we interpret science, the arts and history,” Bunch said. “I want the Smithsonian to do an even better job of embracing Washington, D.C. because you must remember to always take care of home.”