IT’S OFFICIAL. Lonnie G. Bunch III was installed as the 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution on Nov. 1. The ceremony was presided over by John G. Roberts Jr., chief justice of the United States Supreme Court, who serves as chancellor of the Smithsonian. Roberts presented Bunch with a ceremonial brass key, a symbolic token that once opened the grand oak door of the Smithsonian Castle.

The appointment is monumental. The Smithsonian describes itself as “the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex.” The appointment is also unprecedented. Bunch is the first African American, first historian, and first museum director to serve as secretary of the Smithsonian. He was serving as founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) when he was named to the top post on May 28. He began leading the vast Washington, D.C.-based institution on June 16.

 


Nov. 1, 2019: John Robert, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, hands newly installed Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III, the ceremonial Smithsonian key. | Photo by Jaclyn Nash, Courtesy Smithsonian

 

“There is no place I love more than the Smithsonian,” Bunch, 67, said at the installation ceremony. In framing his vision for the institution, he said his leadership would balance tradition and innovation with the goal of bringing greater reach, relevance, and impact to the evolving 21st century organization.

“To members of the board of regents, I am humbled and thankful for your confidence and support and for entrusting me with this amazing institution in what I believe is a time of great possibility. While this is a time we should look forward, as a historian I can’t help but think back and revel in the memories of the events and people that have shaped this journey.”

“There is no place I love more than the Smithsonian… I am humbled and thankful for your confidence and support and for entrusting me with this amazing institution in what I believe is a time of great possibility.”
— Lonnie Bunch

Bunch went on to recount a childhood road trip with his family in the mid-1960s. They were traveling from New Jersey to visit his mother’s family in North Carolina. The nation was celebrating the centennial of the Civil War and Bunch said he kept begging his father to stop at museums and historic battlefields in Virginia and North Carolina along the way, but he kept driving waving off his pleas. On the way back, Bunch made entreaties to visit the sites again and his father repeatedly refused. Eventually, he did make a detour and drove into Washington, D.C.

“He pulled in front of the Smithsonian and then he said to me, you could visit the Smithsonian and not worry about being turned away by the color of your skin,” Bunch recalled his father saying.

“I have never forgotten that moment which told me that the Smithsonian was a special place. At the Smithsonian, was the site of knowledge and education. At the Smithsonian, was the place that welcomed all to learn, to marvel and to imagine. An institution where anyone regardless of who they were could become something more than who they had been.”

 


The first African American, first historian, and first museum director to serve as secretary of the Smithsonian, Lonnie G. Bunch III laid out his vision for the institution. | Photo by Jaclyn Nash, Courtesy Smithsonian

 

THE SMITHSONIAN was founded in 1846 and over nearly two centuries has grown into a sprawling institution. Bunch oversees 19 museums (including several art museums and the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City), 21 libraries, the National Zoo and a variety of research centers including the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Migratory Bird Center, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, and Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. The Smithsonian operates on a $1.6 billion budget with 6,300 employees and 7,300 volunteers. In 2018, 28.5 million people visited.

Bunch has held positions at three Smithsonian museums. He has referred his role as a education specialist and historian at the National Air and Space Museum as his first “real job.” At the National Museum of American History, where he served from 1989-2000, he rose to associate director for curatorial affairs. He took on the NMAAHC project as director in 2005. At the time, the museum lacked a site and there was no budget, staff, or collection.

He recently published a book about the singular experienced called “A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Age of Bush, Obama, and Trump” and embarked on a national book tour that included conversations with Scott Pelley of 60 Minutes, Harvard historian Henry Louis Gates, and Gayle King at the Apollo Theater in Harlem.

The installation ceremony was held in Washington, D.C., at the Arts and Industries Building on the National Mall. It began and concluded with songs from Kenny Lattimore, a native of Washington. He sang the National Anthem at the opening and at the end of the proceedings he regaled the gathering with the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

Kenny Lattimore sang the National Anthem at the opening and at the end of the proceedings he regaled the gathering with the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

Former Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton opened the ceremony. Speaking on behalf of thousands of staff, interns, and volunteers, Eleanor Harvey, senior curator at the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum said they greeted Bunch’s appointment with enthusiasm and joy. It has been 60 years since a leader has been chosen from within the ranks of the Smithsonian. “You are with us,” Harvey said.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS introduced Bunch, who laid out his overarching vision for the institution. He said “everybody should have the opportunity to experience the wonder of the Smithsonian” and added that one of the areas where the institution can make the greatest contribution is education, calling it as a place of lifelong learning. He said the Smithsonian should be in every home and school and that through virtual and traditional means, he sought to expand its audiences. He described bringing the Smithsonian to millions without them ever having to visit in person—through its robust digital strategy, traveling exhibition program, and affiliate museums.

“A long and proud history undergirds the Smithsonian. As a historian, I appreciate the weight of this legacy. While we should respect and revel in the past, we must never be trapped by our traditions. The Smithsonian has always been a forward looking institution, a site to shape, capture, and share innovation with our audiences,” Bunch said. Raising a few examples, he noted the institution’s contributions to early experimentation in rocketry, formation of the National Weather Service, understanding and celebrating the nation’s bicentennial, saving coral reefs, and capturing first-ever image of a black hole.

“I am deeply proud of this legacy, but even prouder about the work that is yet to come, he said.

“A long and proud history undergirds the Smithsonian. As a historian, I appreciate the weight of this legacy. While we should respect and revel in the past, we must never be trapped by our traditions… I am deeply proud of this legacy, but even prouder about the work that is yet to come.”
— Lonnie Bunch


Lonnie G. Bunch III said his leadership would balance tradition and innovation with the goal of bringing greater reach, relevance, and impact to the Smithsonian. | Photo by Jaclyn Nash, Courtesy Smithsonian

 

Next, Bunch focused on his vision going forward. “In the last few months, I have been often asked what do I envision for the Smithsonian. The key to my success, the key to our success, will be if we, and I emphasize we, the Smithsonian can build on this amazing legacy to become the institution this country deserves and quite frankly this country needs,” Bunch said. Then he outlined what he had in mind:

  • We the Smithsonian, will be a research-driven, audience-centered institution committed to contributing to the greater good.
  • We the Smithsonian, will be that hub of learning and innovation that will bring together diverse voices to grapple with the key contemporary challenges of today.
  • We the Smithsonian, will be the place America looks to, to understand itself their history and their world. We must be the glue that helps to hold the nation together.
  • We the Smithsonian, must become much more comfortable working outside of our silos reaching across museums and research center boundaries to maximize our creativity and our impact.
  • And we the Smithsonian, must be a more nimble organization that embraces innovation as the key to understanding the 21st century.
  • And we the Smithsonian, must strike that balance between tradition and innovation using technology to expand our reach our vision and leading us to places we have yet to imagine.
  • And we the Smithsonian, must be open and accessible, an institution that allows every person regardless of race, age, gender, or background or ability to experience the wonders, to experience the joys of the Smithsonian.

Summing up, he said: “Ultimately, we the Smithsonian, will be an institution that makes our communities and our country stronger. An institution not just visited and venerated, but valued for our contributions to the community and the nation we serve.”

He continued: “In a world full of challenging issues and partisan debates our gifted scholars researchers, historians, curators, conservators, and educators contextualize, can bring reason, can bring knowledge that speaks directly to contemporary issues such as the social impact of changing technologies, climate change, shifting notions of culture and national identity, and even more.”

BUNCH SAID HE STOOD on the shoulders of those who came before him. Among others, he cited Solomon Brown, the first African American employee who worked at the Smithsonian for more than 50 years, from 1852-1906; his friend Louis R. Purnell, a Tuskegee Airman who began working at the Air & Space Museum in 1968 and become the Smithsonian’s first black curator in 1980; and John Kinard, founding director of the Anacostia Museum (which was established in 1976 as “an outreach effort by the Smithsonian to the local African American community”), and Zora Martin Felton, who established the museum’s education department.

He also acknowledged Skorton, his predecessor, calling him a “dear friend,” and S. Dillon Ripley, who served as secretary from 1964 to 1984. Bunch said Ripley “took a chance on someone who knew absolutely nothing about museums and hired them.” In addition, Bunch said, his wife Maria Marable-Bunch “knew more about museums than he ever will.” She serves as associate director for museum learning and programs at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

After Bunch gave remarks, Dr. Risa J. Lavizzo-Mourey paid tribute to him. A member of the board of regents executive committee who is African American, she delivered her speech before Lattimore blessed the ceremony with a rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

“There is no better person to help the Smithsonian be more virtual, be more agile, be more collaborative, to lead the way forward and do the impossible, than Lonnie Bunch.”
— Steve Case, Chair Smithsonian Board of Regents

Earlier in the ceremony, Steve Case, the co-founder of AOL who was appointed chair of the Smithsonian Board of Regents Oct. 21, gave remarks. He highlighted Bunch’s great feat of building and opening NMAAHC. He called the accomplishment “a testament to the possibilities of the seemingly impossible.” The bottom line is this, Case said:

“There is no better person to help the Smithsonian be more virtual, be more agile, be more collaborative, to lead the way forward and do the impossible, than Lonnie Bunch. Indeed, Lonnie has the potential to be the most transformative Secretary in Smithsonian’s 172-year history. Lonnie knows the Smithsonian and loves the Smithsonian and is loved and trusted by the 7,000 people that make up the Smithsonian. He is the perfect leader to strike the right balance as we seek to celebrate what makes the Smithsonian so special today, while we strive to lean into the future creating the Smithsonian of tomorrow.” CT

 

Smithsonian exhibitions currently on view that focus on black artists or African American subjects, include “One Life: Marian Anderson” at the National Portrait Gallery (June 28, 2019-May 17, 2020). At the same museum, portraits of President Barack Obama by Kehinde Wiley and First Lady Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald are on permanent display. The National Museum of African Art is presenting “I Am… Contemporary Women Artists of Africa” (June 20, 2019-July 5, 2020) and “Mark Bradford: Pickett’s Charge” is on view at the Hirshhorn through 2021. “Now Showing: Posters from African American Movies,” a special exhibition at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, opened recently.

 

BOOKSHELF
Lonnie G. Bunch III wrote an inspiring and funny book about building the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. “A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Age of Bush, Obama, and Trump” is promoted as “a deeply personal tale of the triumphs and challenges” of bringing the museum to life. Many other books have been published by or in collaboration with NMAACH, including “Dream a World Anew: The African American Experience and the Shaping of America” edited by Kinshasha Holman Conwill, “Begin with the Past: Building the National Museum of African American History and Culture” by Mabel O. Wilson, and “Sweet Home Café Cookbook: A Celebration of African American Cooking,” among others. “Mark Bradford: Pickett’s Charge” documents the artist’s monumental installation at the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum.

 


Chief Justice Roberts introduces Lonnie Bunch and presents him with the Smithsonian key at 41:50. Bunch’s remarks begin at 46:45, he delineates his vision for the institution at 57:10, and concludes his remarks at 59:29 invoking the legacy of Frederick Douglass.

 

SUPPORT CULTURE TYPE
Do you enjoy and value Culture Type? Please consider supporting its ongoing production by making a donation. Culture Type is a solo editorial project that requires countless hours and expense to research, report, write, and produce. To help sustain it, make a one-time donation or sign up for a recurring monthly contribution. It only takes a minute. Many Thanks for Your Support.