Lonnie G. Bunch III, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, has been elected as the 14th secretary of the Smithsonian, the institution’s board of regents announced Tuesday.
Bunch, who will succeed David Skorton, will begin his new position on June 16.
The founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in September 2016, Bunch oversees the nation’s largest and most comprehensive cultural destination devoted exclusively to exploring, documenting and showcasing the African-American story and its impact on American and world history.
His election is unprecedented for the Smithsonian as he becomes the first African American to lead the Smithsonian, and the first historian elected secretary. The historic promotion also means that Bunch becomes the first museum director to ascend to secretary in 74 years.
“Lonnie Bunch guided, from concept to completion, the complex effort to build the premier museum celebrating African-American achievements,” said Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who serves as Smithsonian chancellor. “I look forward to working with him as we approach the Smithsonian’s 175th anniversary, to increase its relevance and role as a beloved American institution and public trust.”
Bunch, a public historian, has spent more than 35 years in the museum field, where he is regarded as one of the nation’s leading figures. He and the board of regents said they are committed to driving forward the priorities and direction of the Smithsonian’s 2022 strategic plan.
“I am humbled and honored to become the 14th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution,” said Bunch, who 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.
“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 said.
Board Chair David Rubenstein, who along with Vice Chair Steve Case led the Regents’ 11-member search committee, called Bunch a deeply respected scholar, educator and leader.
“In looking for someone who would shepherd the institution into the future, we wanted to find a special person with equal parts talent and passion,” Rubenstein said. “Fortunately, the ideal choice for our next Secretary was already an integral part of the Smithsonian family.”
After working at the Smithsonian in various capacities over three decades, and then birthing a wildly successful startup within the Smithsonian, Bunch has the benefit of knowing the institution intimately, Case said.
“Now Lonnie will bring his insights and passion to reimagining the Smithsonian of the future, and creating a culture of agility and innovation to expand the Institution’s impact,” Case said.
Under Bunch’s leadership, the National Museum of African American History and Culture came to life. When he started as director in 2005, he had one staff member, no collections, no funding and no site for a museum.
Driven by optimism, determination and a commitment to build “a place that would make America better,” Bunch transformed a vision into a bold reality.
The museum, which has welcomed about 4 million visitors and compiled a collection of 40,000 objects, is the first “green building” on the National Mall and Bunch rallied donors of every level and worked with Congress to fund the museum through a public-private collaboration.
“The regents stand ready to support Lonnie’s vision for driving cross-institutional collaboration to create a virtual Smithsonian that can reach everybody, everywhere,” Case said.