Lonnie G. Bunch III, a bespectacled man with a neatly cut gray beard, is laughing about how he was seduced into taking the job of founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture—the latest and most anticipated addition to the massive Smithsonian Institution. After all, when the Smithsonian approached him, he was happily ensconced at the Chicago Historical Society. His initial reluctance may have something to do with the sky-high expectations about the museum. Already, more 100,000 people have become dues-paying charter members—sight unseen. President Barack Obama is expected to participate in the official opening and dedication ceremony on Sept. 24.
“I’ve got 7,000 seats for 52,000 people,” Bunch confesses. The overflow crowd for the dedication will be invited to watch events on large outdoor screens placed around the National Mall. But already, the museum has had to conduct multiple distribution rounds of tickets for admission to the facility, using a timed pass process.
“It is a momentous occasion,” says James Early, who worked for three decades at the Smithsonian Institution, most recently as a senior manager at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Studies. “The history of black people has not been allowed in the public square.”
African-American Civil War veterans first proposed a museum in 1915. Congress didn’t authorize its creation until 1929. Still, nothing happened. In 1988, Rep. John Lewis reintroduced the idea, offering legislation annually until 2003, when the bill was finally approved and signed into law by President George W. Bush.
“This museum may well be the change agent,” says Joy Austin, executive director of the D.C. Humanities Council and a former director of the Association of African American Museums. “I know we’re going to cry. It’s not going to be easy, but a lot of truth is going to come out. I have a lot of hope for this museum.”
When the Smithsonian approached him, he demurred by telling officials they needed “somebody smarter than me,” but privately Bunch worried that some people were predicting the new facility would be “the best black museum in the world. I thought that was so limiting. I thought that was suggesting [our] culture wasn’t the culture that profoundly shaped all of America.”
Then, “the Smithsonian did a really smart thing,” Bunch recalls. They asked him to “write up your ideas. When you ask a writer to write, well…The next thing I know, I am back here.’’ His wife also encouraged him, asking “Wouldn’t you be upset if this was not done in a way that you thought was important?”
When Bunch arrived in the nation’s capital, he had only two staffers, a few artifacts, and the challenge of raising at least $250 million from private donors as required in the federal legislation. “Except when I am sleeping, every hour of my day for the past 11 years has been spent thinking about this museum,” he says.
A self-effacing man with a ready, warm smile, Bunch doesn’t like talking about himself. He would rather cast a bright light on his associates. “I grew up in a family that said, ‘Never believe your clippings,’” he explains. “For me, it’s never about me. It’s about ‘Can I get the work done? Can I help other people do their work?’”
Nevertheless, Bunch’s personal and professional narratives make clear why the Smithsonian chased him down. He’s ideally suited to lead “The Museum,” as some are calling it.
“Lonnie is a well calibrated guy. He has a consciousness about elements and dimensions of himself. There is a no-nonsense dimension that helps get things done,” says Early, who has known Bunch since 1984.
Those attributes may have a lot to do with his upbringing. Bunch was reared in Belleville, New Jersey. The center of activity, however, was Newark, where he was born. “That’s where I got my hair cut. That’s where I went to church.” His yen for history began at family barbecues. As a kid, he’d watch older men gather together. He dreamed of one day joining the huddle. “I thought that’s where the secrets of the universe would be unveiled.” He eventually learned those men were “sharing and debating histories… I remember one uncle saying Jackie Robinson was the best baseball player. This guy said ‘No, it was Satchel Paige.’ I loved hearing those stories and wanted to be able to make them more important.”
Not every backyard was welcoming: Bunch recalls being 8 or 9 years old and playing with several kids. “The mother came out; we were lined up [in a way] she couldn’t see everybody. She was giving out glasses of Kool-Aid. When she got to me, she said, ‘You can drink out of the hose.’
“I never forgot not just how much that hurt, the look on the other kids’ faces, as if they were better than me,” he says. “We were one of the few black families, so I learned a lot about race. I learned a lot about how to negotiate race.”
“I had my feet in two worlds: in the world of white Belleville and in the African-American community,” Bunch explains. “In some ways, I always felt that gave me an obligation to bring people together.”
Those early experiences with racism helped drive him to succeed. A female classmate during his senior year of high school told him, “‘You’ll never graduate college.’ I wrote that on a piece of paper with her name and carried it in my wallet. Every time things were tough… I would pull that out and I would say to myself I’m not going to let her win.”
He didn’t. Even now, however, there may be a part of him that is trying to prove her wrong. As he finds himself reluctantly in the limelight, he’s never quite at ease. Like the recent Vanity Fair photoshoot he trekked up to New York for. He found himself in a photographer’s studio in Tribeca, posing for a portrait. “I am so uncomfortable with this stuff. Some people are good at it. I’m not.” That feeling continued even after he saw the published photo.
“I saw it and I said this little colored kid from Belleville is in Vanity Fair.”
When he left New Jersey, Bunch initially enrolled in Howard University. Then, he met a girl who attended American University, so he transferred. “She [ultimately] broke my heart.” He went on to receive his undergraduate and master’s degree in American history and African-American history. Following his parents, who were teachers, he expected to anchor his career in academia.
An empty wallet during his graduate years in the late 1970s altered those plans. He had been living on a monthly teaching assistant’s salary of $309, and found himself broke. An older returning student referred him to her husband, who worked at the Smithsonian. “Who works at the Smithsonian? It’s where you take dates ’cause it’s free,” Bunch told her.
The student’s husband was the director of science education. He introduced Bunch to the secretary of the Smithsonian. After that meeting, they offered him a position at the National Air and Space Museum. Bunch was a tad indignant. “Here I am, a 19th century historian of race and cities. I don’t even like to fly. I don’t know anything about space.”
The secretary hit him with a dose of reality: “Do you want to work? Do you want some money, and a chance to do something important?” Bunch became an education specialist and met his future wife there.
After brushing aside an initial opportunity to meet new interns, offering that “I was a scholar with work to do,” he returned a week later taking the scenic route through the office to be wowed by one of them: “Who is that woman?” She was an intern from George Washington University working on her master’s degree in museum education. “I went up to her and said let me share my years of knowledge; I had worked in the museum maybe five months. I wanted to impress her,” he says. She wasn’t impressed—although in November they will celebrate their 36th anniversary, and they have two daughters. “I was very lucky to find someone who is smart and willing to go on an adventure.”
His father’s advice also affected his career decisions. He told Bunch, “It’s okay to build your resume when you’re young.” Both his parents had worked at their respective jobs for 40 years. Nevertheless, his father’s advice replayed in Bunch’s mind when he was recruited in 1983 to be curator of history and program manager for the California African American Museum in Los Angeles.
There, Bunch’s talents as a creative curator and museum professional grabbed everyone’s attention. He proposed an exhibition that would connect with the 1984 Olympic Games. “I thought, how hard could it be to do an exhibition on blacks in the Olympics?” There was very little scholarship on the topic, and he grappled with the challenge of holding together history that covered 1904 through 1950. The answer to his question came during a walk to the stadium, as he watched tracks for the field event being put down. He asked the workers whether they had ever laid tracks inside a building. Until then, they hadn’t.
Austin was impressed that Bunch had created this historical and “new understanding” of African Americans in sports. But she was also amazed that he had used unprecedented technique within the exhibit to present the data. “He had tracks running through the museum.”
“What I’ve learned, which comes out of African-American culture, is that one of my great strengths is improvisation and a sense of nimbleness,” Bunch says, explaining his sometime unorthodox approaches to presenting information within the context of exhibitions. “I used to drive some of the people in the Smithsonian crazy. They would say, ‘Oh my God, Lonnie we’ve got this problem. I don’t know how we are going to do this.’ I would say, ‘I’ll figure it out.’”
By 1989, Bunch was back in the nation’s capital—this time at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “I thought I’d be there forever. I’m a curator. I’m doing all the work I love, I’m traveling the world. I ran this big project in Japan.” His father’s advice came back to him again.
“I had just done a big exhibit on American presidents with some colleagues, and I was really proud of it. I was 48 years old.” Along the way, he became associate director of curatorial affairs.
“[But] I remember saying to myself, don’t coast,” says Bunch. In 2001, he became president of the Chicago Historical Society, one of the oldest museums in the country.
Bunch’s ascent in the museum world wasn’t always golden, however. There have been moments that required “fighting for an issue or trying to get something done.
“What I realized is that ultimately, my goal was to win. If the fight had to do with an exhibition or how we are going to do this film, I realize that the key was to figure out what’s the best way to win, not what’s the best way that makes me feel good.
“I must admit the only thing that will get me angry is the lack of respect, and there were times in my career where I felt somebody was being disrespectful. I ended up going to the gym and beating the bags.”
Bunch’s office, where he has planned the creation of one of the most important institutions in America’s history, is located on the 7th floor of a nondescript federal building on Maryland Avenue SW. His conference room is filled with various certificates and awards from organizations like PUSH (People United to Save Humanity, a nonprofit founded by the Rev. Jesse Jackson), Friends of the Du Sable Museum, and the Mitchelville Preservation Project. On May 26, 2016, The Historical Society of Washington, D.C. named him Visionary Historian. Wherever he has gone, he has been lauded—treated, in some instances, with near-godlike reverence.
“I think he is phenomenal. He has done a great job being a visionary, cajoling and whatever else it takes to get this job done,” says Marta Reid Stewart. As founder of the Duke Ellington High School of the Arts museum studies program, she knows a little about operating without a blueprint.
Bunch has worked tirelessly in preparing for the museum’s debut. He traveled to Cuba, hoping to secure a ship that demonstrated the direct connection of the United States in the Caribbean slave trade. “Things didn’t quite work out,” says Early, who facilitated that trip. “Lonnie is very patient. He took the long view. I was told recently that George Washington University,” which is part of the Slave Wreck Project, “is in discussions now with the Cubans.” Bunch, with the help from GW and others, was able to secure parts of the Portuguese slave ship—São José Paquete de Africa—which had been in the waters off the coast of South Africa.
He and his team have also persuaded hundreds of ordinary people to donate their family heirlooms and other keepsakes. Philadelphia historian and collector Charles Blockson gladly turned over Harriett Tubman’s shawl and hymnal. Thus far, the Museum has a permanent collection of more than 36,000 historical and cultural artifacts.
Some of those materials have already appeared in published books and public exhibitions. “We’ve done things that explored the criminal justice system. We want to be able to have candid conversations about sexual violence, about race writ large,” he says.
“I have argued this museum is as much as about today and tomorrow as it is about yesterday. Part of the challenge of a history museum is that sometimes we forget to humanize history. We tell the big story, but you don’t see yourself,” says Bunch. “What you will see in this museum are a lot of individual stories… I am trying to create a museum that will make America better.”
How will he measure his success? “That’s a hard one,” Bunch replies. For many African Americans, just opening the museum will represent an enormous victory. After all, the fight for it began more than 100 years ago.
Bunch recalled going to the museum building early one morning, as he has done on many occasions. It was a Sunday, six months ago. “There was this older black man. He was looking at the building and I was looking at the building. Then, all of a sudden, I saw him start to cry. I thought he was sick.
“I went over and said, ‘Excuse me sir are you okay?’ He said ‘I’m fine. I’m just moved because I didn’t believe I could ever see this building happen,’” Bunch recalls. “If I can help people believe and see their story in a way that is a story for all Americans, then I will feel good.”