The January 2017 issue of Washingtonian, the magazine for the Washington DC region, named Lonnie Bunch as one of its “eleven locals whose commitment to helping others makes Washington a better place to live.” Usually the list is made up of wealthy philanthropists, sports figures, political leaders, and education reformers, so it was a nice surprise to see an historian who works at a museum named among its most benevolent in a city full of history and museums .
Lonnie Bunch is the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened last fall and whose continuing popularity makes admission one of the hottest tickets in town. Bunch was previously the president of the Chicago Historical Society and curator at the National Air and Space Museum, National Museum of American History, and the California African American Museum, where I first met him twenty years ago when I was conducting research on jazz bands in 1920s Los Angeles. I’ve always enjoyed my encounters with him, which often happen as happy accidents through a last-minute invitation to dinner in Chicago, running into him during the Folklife Festival, or sharing a car ride with him to the airport in Charleston. So I was delighted when he agreed to write the foreword for my first book, Interpreting African American History and Culture at Museums and Historic Sites.
Washingtonian recognizes Bunch for his effort to find a spot on the Mall for the museum, raising much of the $270 million to match Congress’ contribution, and attracting donations from people across America. I also know him as a personable and savvy museum leader, which is better revealed in an article he wrote for Smithsonian in September 2016. A couple excerpts provide ideas that other museums and historic sites can easily adopt:
- “Museums that specialize in a given ethnic group usually focus solely on an insider’s perspective of that group. But the story we’re going to tell is bigger than that; it embraces not only African-American history and culture, but how that history has shaped America’s identity. My goal for the last 11 years has been to create a museum that modeled the nation I was taught to expect: a nation that was diverse; that was fair; that was always struggling to make itself better—to perfect itself by living up to the ideals in our founding documents.”
- “I think a museum needs to be a place that finds the right tension between moments of pain and stories of resiliency and uplift. There will be moments where visitors could cry as they ponder the pains of the past, but they will also find much of the joy and hope that have been a cornerstone of the African-American experience. Ultimately, I trust that our visitors will draw sustenance, inspiration, and a commitment from the lessons of history to make America better.”
- “I decided we had to act like a museum from the very beginning. Rather than simply plan for a building that would be a decade away, we felt that it was crucial to curate exhibitions, publish books, craft the virtual museum online—in essence, to demonstrate the quality and creativity of our work to potential donors, collectors, members of Congress and the Smithsonian.”
- “Some early plans for the museum de-emphasized artifacts, partly out of a belief that there were few to be collected and technology could fill any void. But I already knew that even if you have the very best technology, a tech-driven institution would fail. People come to the Smithsonian museums to revel in the authentic, to see Dorothy’s ruby slippers, or the Wright Flyer, or the Hope Diamond, or the Greensboro lunch counter.”
- “The curators operated under one firm directive: 70 to 80 percent of what they collected had to end up on the museum floor, not in storage. We couldn’t afford to collect, say, a thousand baseballs and have only two of them end up on display.”
Congratulations to Lonnie Bunch on his recognition in Washingtonian and thanks to those of working in history and museums for making our communities a better place to live.