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  • Smithsonian Institution Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III (right) and Henry Louis Gates Jr. in conversation at Harvard's Peabody Museum on Wednesday night

Smithsonian Secretary Reflects on Career, Changing How We See African American History

Smithsonian Secretary Reflects on Career, Changing How We See African American History

"This museum is about understanding American history through an African American lens."

Lonnie G. Bunch III, the newly appointed 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, spoke to a sold-out crowd about his long and storied career in museum curation and management on Wednesday night. The event was organized by Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology as part of the book tour for Bunch’s new memoir, A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Age of Bush, Obama, and Trump.

Prior to assuming his current role on June 16 of this year, Bunch served as the inaugural Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture since March 2005. Bunch was joined on stage by Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., a noted literary scholar, filmmaker, and Director of Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African & African American Research.

Over the course of their 90 minute conversation, the two men reflected on Bunch’s hard knocks upbringing (as the only black family in an Italian neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey), the challenges and controversies he had to deal with while creating the newest Smithsonian museum, and his overall goals and guiding vision for his tenure as the Institution’s secretary.

Bunch started the night off with an explanation of the “fool’s errand” mentioned in his book title. The opportunity presented to him in 2005 – to leave his role as president and director of the Chicago History Museum to go build the NMAAHC – was framed as an insurmountable task: “You’ve just successfully raised $25 million, now go raise $1 billion.”

While large-dollar donations from celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan helped partially cover the museum’s $270 million construction cost, Bunch revealed that soliciting funds for the project was an often difficult and sometimes demoralizing job.

“I would be ignored, or told ‘We’re not interested at all,’” Bunch said. He also shared the story of when he was laughed out of a company’s office after an unsuccessful meeting, describing the experience as his “lowest moment” of the entire process.

But Bunch persevered to raise the required funds, arguing that “making a way out of no way” and not giving up were core components of African American history.

“Plus, I am so damn competitive,” Bunch said. “I hate to lose.”

However, funding was not the only challenging aspect of the NMAAHC’s creation. Bunch said that deciding where the museum should be built was a very controversial process, with some Republicans in Congress arguing against his goal of getting a space on the National Mall.

“I hired the Clintons’ crisis communication team to prepare two speeches for me,” Bunch said. “The first one was thanking Congress and the selection committee for giving us a spot on the Mall, and the other was announcing that I’d need to walk away from the project if we weren’t going to be given the land."

Luckily, the selection committee did decide on a plot of land on the National Mall, just west of the National Museum of American History. But that wasn’t the end of Bunch’s construction woes, as the NMAAHC was planned to have the lowest foundation of all the Smithsonian museums.

“We were supposed to dig down 80 feet, and we hit water at 8 feet,” Bunch said. “I thought this would be the death of the project — we were suddenly building the largest swimming pool on the National Mall.”

The construction team ultimately enlisted the help of Dutch architects, who were able to use their flood control expertise to solve the problem.

Gates also asked Bunch a number of questions about how he went about designing and curating the museum. Bunch explained that his goal of addressing issues of identity and sexuality (two topics traditionally underrepresented in African American history) was "at the heart of the museum."

"How do you tell the unvarnished truth?" Bunch asked. Later, when asked about having controversial artifacts on display in the museum, Bunch again stressed his commitment to the truth: "If you're afraid [of controversy], you don't build this museum."

Still, Bunch acknowledged that the NMAAHC should be inviting and accessible to all visitors."This museum is not about guilt or pointing fingers," he said. "It's about embracing so much more than African American history... about understanding American history through an African American lens."

Towards the end of the night, Gates asked Bunch about his current and future goals as Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Bunch is focused on how the Smithsonian should best operate "national museums in a trans-national age" and how to increase the Institution's global impact. He also said he wants to do more to open up the museums to students from DC-area schools.

"There are so many African American kids who don't get to experience culture," Bunch said. "At the end of the day, these museums are as much about today and tomorrow as they are about yesterday."