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Smithsonian Secretary Brings Book Talk to Museum He Founded

Newly appointed Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch III made the second stop of his book tour for the just-released “A Fool’s Errand,” which recounts the story of how he founded what has become the most popular museum in the Smithsonian complex, at the book’s setting, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).

The official release date coincided with the third anniversary of the record-breaking museum, which has seen some 6.5 million visitors pass through its doors since it opened on Sept. 24, 2016. Bunch was named secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in June 2019.

Hundreds packed the Heritage Hall on the main floor of the spacious and visually stunning museum to hear Bunch’s conversation with CBS News correspondent Scott Pelley, during which he recounted the story of how he helped bring the idea of the museum to fruition.

“We had a great story,” Bunch told Pelley. “How many chances do you get to build a museum about what divides us as a nation?”

Pelley began the conversation by telling his story of how CBS and Bunch first intersected. In a proposed story about the builders of the Capitol building, which was constructed using the labor of enslaved African Americans, the news organization was looking for a historian who could help develop that story. That historian was Dr. Lonnie Bunch III, who was in the nascent stages of building the hallowed museum dedicated to telling the story of a people who came to this country in bondage, but forever changed the culture of the United States.

“It’s really not a book about building the most magnificent monument of the 21st century, if you ask me,” Pelley said. “It is about overcoming adversity. It’s about putting a team together, about the creativity involved, and then it’s about mastering the adversity and all of the obstacles that you didn’t see coming.”

In response, Bunch recalled the story of Princy Jenkins Jenkins, who was living in a home that used to belong to enslaved people.

“Princy Jenkins Jenkins a sharecropper, he was the grandson of an enslaved woman who lived on a plantation her whole life outside of Georgetown, South Carolina. When I went to do research and interview him, he wasn’t sure who I was or what I did. But at the end of the day, he said ‘it’s really important to make sure that you just don’t give people what they really want. It is important to give them what they need. For me, what that meant was how I make sure that everybody understands that they are shaped in profound ways by the African American experience. How do I make sure the museum gives people not just what commemorates and celebrates, but challenges, prods, demands that they look in all the dark corners of the American experience. Princy Jenkins Jenkins taught me that.”

The lively back-and-forth went from Pelley recalling first seeing the pit in the ground that would become the museum, to seeing the actual structure. It was compelling enough for the program “60 Minutes” to revisit three times as the building went from blueprint to actuality.

“I think it was really important to realize that slavery is central to understanding the American experience, the African American experience, but that is not the totality of the Black experience. For me, I was trying to find the right tension between resiliency, optimism, pain and understanding. I wanted this museum to be a place that would allow you to cry when you pondered the pain of slavery and segregation, but also a place where you could hear the tunes of Aretha Franklin. I wanted this museum to tell a full, complex picture. A picture than wouldn’t have simple answers, but lots of shades of gray, lots of ambiguity,” Bunch explained.

Bunch was living in Chicago at the time he received the call to be the founding director of the museum which would finally place the history of African American people on the National Mall. He also recalled his initial hesitancy about accepting the challenge. Although he had a few stints at the Smithsonian Institution before, at the National Museum of American History and Air and Space Museum, Bunch had moved on to Chicago where he headed up the Chicago Historical Society before returning to the Smithsonian in 2005.

Starting with a staff of two, Bunch grew the personnel to its present number, approximately 205 employees which are now being headed under the direction of Spencer Crew, a longtime affiliate of Bunch during his tenure at the National Museum of American History.

But the fight to get the NMAAHC on the National Mall was quite another struggle, and one that he had to convince Congress and others that it belonged on the mall with the other monuments to American history. He called it, “a museum of no.”

“This is a museum that started with nothing. It had one member of the staff besides myself. It had no collection, no idea that we would be where we are today. It had no money raised. There were very few people who really believed this would happen. So my notion was ‘am I willing to take that leap and believe we could, no matter how long it took, turn the ‘no’ into a place that mattered.”

The hourlong discussion covered some of Pelley’s favorite quotes from the book, and also looked at Bunch’s favorite objects from the collections, which came from the historian’s idea after falling asleep in front of the television. When he woke up, “Antiques Roadshow,” was playing and he decided to travel the country looking for objects.

Approximately 70 percent of the 37,000 objects now comprising the permanent collections came from the attics and basements of people throughout the nation. A few of his favorite objects include Nat Turner’s Bible, belonging to the abolitionist who led the deadliest slave revolt in the history of the United States, but also what he called a “tin wallet” holding the manumission papers of Joseph Trammell, given to the museum by his descendants.

“A Fool’s Errand” went on sale on Sept. 24, and Bunch is expected to visit six additional cities in 2019, including New York City, Philadelphia, Boston and Los Angeles, where he will be interviewed by Gayle King of CBS News, Henry Louis Gates and other notables. More dates will be added in 2020.

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