(WASHINGTON) — Lonnie Bunch III’s passion for history began in Bellevue, N.J., when his sharecropper-turned-dentist grandfather would read stories to him of African American school children from the 1800s with photo captions that read “unidentified.”
He said his grandfather once turned to him and said, “‘Isn’t it a shame that they could live their lives, die, and all the caption said was, ‘unidentified?’ And that just really hit me.”
America’s narrative is captured in thousands of sepia-toned and black-and-white images, artifacts, stories and songs. And the people behind that creation matter — remembered in small print captions that illustrate moments in history.
But for marginalized communities, the names simply aren’t always there, an erasure of memory and of history.
This simple fact struck Bunch as he began to take notice within his own town and elementary school that some people would treat him differently based on the color of his skin, and he wanted to understand why.
“I saw that if I understood the history first of this town and then of America I might understand a little better about issues of race,” Bunch said.
Bunch, the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, has spent over 35 years in the museum world telling stories that he said helps people “wrestle with the unvarnished truth.” His groundbreaking approach to storytelling will expand as he becomes the first African American secretary of the Smithsonian, overseeing 19 museums, 21 libraries, a budget of $1.5 billion, a staff of 6,800 and a collection of over 150 million objects.
“I think it’s important for us to recognize that from history we’re going to help America understand its diversity and understand itself better by looking at the array of people who’ve made up this country,” Bunch said.
While Bunch has been a history fanatic since around the age of 5, he said that ending up working at the Smithsonian in 1978 was somewhat of a “mistake.”
He was near the end of graduate school and was talking to a fellow classmate about how he, like many graduating students, needed a job. He said his classmate recommended that Bunch go talk to her husband who worked at the Smithsonian.
“And I remember thinking, ‘Who works at the Smithsonian? That’s where you take dates because it’s free,'” Bunch said, through laughter. And that’s how his career began.
He started at the National Air and Space Museum as a historian, and it is here where he said he fell in love with museums as a place of education, communication and where different generations and groups of people can come together.
“In some ways, a good museum is like a backyard barbecue,” Bunch said. “Somebody will say something, and then somebody goes in a different direction and then ultimately the conversation goes on to a place nobody anticipated.”
He then went on to hold a number of positions at the National Museum of American History, including the role of associate director for curatorial affairs.
Bunch is most known for is his role in directing the creation of the National Museum of African American History and Culture — an effort that began in 2005.
The road to opening the museum was not an easy one, according to Bunch. The title of his upcoming book, A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture during the Age of Bush, Obama and Trump, says it all.
One of the first challenges he faced was building a collection, as he is a believer that if you “didn’t have the stuff of history you’d fail.”
He said the idea for how to curate that collection came to him one day after falling asleep in his chair and waking up to an episode of Antiques Roadshow on PBS.
“I’d never heard of it and I thought, ‘What a great idea,'” Bunch said. “So we stole the idea of Antiques Roadshow and we went around the country and asked people to bring out their stuff.”
By the time Bunch and his team were done traveling across the country, he said they came back to Washington with more than 40,000 objects, of which 70 percent came out of the basements, trucks and attics of peoples homes.
Another hurdle Bunch and his team had to overcome was securing the financing for the museum.
Kinshasha Holman Conwill, deputy director for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, worked alongside Bunch during the decade-long process of creating the museum and said it was his incredible storytelling ability to “make objects come alive” that played such a pivotal role in his fundraising efforts.
“One of the things that struck me early was that part of his charisma and power as a fundraiser and as a leader was his ability to take a story and to weave it into a way that would help people see how they fit in,” Conwill said.
During the 11 years prior to its opening, he was able to secure critical federal funding of $270 million and private donations of $317 million to ensure its future, according to the Smithsonian.
The historical and symbolic importance of his appointment as the first African American secretary is not lost upon Bunch. He said he’s spent his career trying “to help America by using history to confront its tortured racial past” and believes that “maybe by looking honestly at the past we might be able to find some reconciliation and hope.”
“In essence, it should, as I’ve tried to do my whole career, open other doors,” Bunch said. “Encourage other people, challenge places to recognize that they are better when they let a diversity of people help shape an institution.”
Working at the Smithsonian has provided more than just a career for Bunch. It is also the place where he found love.
Bunch met his wife, Maria Marable-Bunch, during his time as a young educator and historian at the National Air and Space Museum and while she was finishing her master’s degree in museum education. They now have two daughters who, he said, grew up as “Smithsonian kids.”
“We’ve had this amazing partnership where I always say she’s the person that really understands museums, and I’m just a historian hanging out,” Bunch said. “So, ultimately, I would say that the Smithsonian shaped almost everything about me, my career, my family.”
Marable-Bunch is currently the associate director of museum learning and programs at the National Museum of the American Indian.
Bunch will start his new role as secretary of the Smithsonian on Monday and while he said that he is overwhelmingly excited and humbled to enter in his new role, he knows that he is set to face a number of political and financial challenges.
One of those challenges is the Smithsonian’s long history with the Sackler family.
Currently, the Smithsonian is home to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery which features Asian art from ancient times to present. Earlier this year, a federal lawsuit was filed by 600 cities, counties and Native American tribes against eight of Sackler’s relatives, including the descendants of his younger brothers, Mortimer and Raymond Sackler. Those two brothers founded the pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma, which produced the now-infamous painkiller drug, OxyContin. Neither Arthur Sackler nor any of his descendants are named in the federal lawsuit.
In a statement to ABC News, Purdue Pharma said: “The company is committed to working with all parties toward a resolution that helps bring needed solutions to communities and states to address this public health crisis. We continue to work collaboratively within the MDL process outlined by Judge Polster.”
The museum has received blow-back and even protests for their relationship with the Sacklers. Some have called for the Smithsonian to take the family name off of their museum and to return all donations from the family.
“The criticism the Smithsonian is receiving is not fair,” said Jan Wooten, a spokeswoman for the family of Arthur Sackler. She said that Sackler, a psychiatrist and a pioneer of pharmaceutical marketing including Valium, had no direct involvement with OxyContin or Purdue Pharma.
Arthur Sackler donated 1,000 works and $4 million to the Smithsonian years before OxyContin was launched, Wooten added. The museum has received roughly $7.5 million from various Sackler family members since the museum opened.
Bunch said the Smithsonian looks at these issues “case by case … so that’s something I’ll look at as we move forward,” Bunch said.
The Smithsonian has also struggled to keep with technological advances, an issue that Bunch said will be a focus during his tenure as the 14th secretary of the museum.
“We want to be able to really use technology to find the right tension between tradition and innovation,” Bunch said. “We want to make sure that there is a kind of virtual Smithsonian that would allow people who would never get to Washington to access it.”
While the road might be bumpy ahead during this transition for Bunch, he said that he is most excited to bring his deep love for the museum into his leadership of the world’s largest museum complex.
“I can bring that sense of love, maybe sometimes tough love, to help the institution continue to be what it should be,” Bunch said. “As an educational institution, the Smithsonian is part of the glue that holds the country together.”
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