Leader of Smithsonian’s African American Museum to Direct Entire Institution
Heralded for the success of the museum he led from idea to fruition,
Lonnie G. Bunch III is the first African-American to lead the Smithsonian
By Graham Bowley
Lonnie G. Bunch III, the museum leader who opened the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture to
critical applause and huge crowds, will serve as the next secretary of the entire Smithsonian, its most senior position.
Mr. Bunch, 66, will be the first historian and the first African-American to oversee the Smithsonian’s 19 museums and galleries, the
National Zoological Park and research centers. He will take over on June 16, the Smithsonian announced Tuesday.
Mr. Bunch, who began his career in 1978 at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, said in an interview that, as the Smithsonians’s
14th secretary, he hoped to figure out how to make the institution “more effective in the digital space” so that it could reach a broader
audience than those who might have the time to visit Washington.
“I want to help it transform America,” he said.
As founding director of the African-American museum, Mr. Bunch led a decade-long effort to create a space that would recognize the
achievements of black Americans, as well as the horrors of slavery and the struggle for civil rights. It fittingly opened on the National Mall
in September 2016 at a ceremony at which President Barack Obama spoke.
“Lonnie Bunch guided, from concept to completion, the complex effort to build the premier museum celebrating African American
achievements,” John G. Roberts Jr., Smithsonian chancellor and the chief justice of the United States, said in a statement. “I look forward
to working with him as we approach the Smithsonian’s 175th anniversary, to increase its relevance and role as a beloved American
institution and public trust.”
When Mr. Bunch joined the National Museum of African American History in 2005, he faced an uphill task: constructing a new museum
from scratch, working with Congress to fund the museum, attracting big name donors and building a collection from nothing.
The result was a new public museum at the heart of Washington’s cultural
landscape designed by the Tanzanian-born architect David Adjaye to evoke
a crown motif from ancient Yoruban sculpture, or alternatively women’s hands
lifted to the sky in prayer.
[Read our review of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.]
From the beginning, Mr. Bunch insisted he did not want to create a public space for a black audience only, but for all Americans. The
African-American story, he said, was an American story, as central to the country’s narrative as any other, and understanding black history
and culture is essential to understanding American history and culture.
Mr. Bunch said that he is open to the changes a successor might make at the museum he founded, but that one thing should not change:
the mission of its being a museum that perceives its audience as all Americans. “That is the most important of all that we have done,” he
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On Tuesday, the Smithsonian said the distinctive museum he had helped bring into being had gathered a collection of 40,000 objects
and attracted four million visitors since it opened.
Many of the objects gathered by Mr. Bunch’s team were treasures donated by ordinary people. It ran an “Antiques Roadshow”-style project
in 15 cities that encouraged people to give heirlooms from their closets and attics.
He was appointed to the secretary position following a search by an 11-member committee led by David Rubenstein, chairman of the
Smithsonian Board of Regents, and Steve Case, its vice chairman.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.
Susan Walsh/Associated Press
The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.CreditSusan Walsh/Associated Press
Mr. Bunch replaces David J. Skorton, a cardiologist and former president of Cornell, who announced in December he was leaving his
position to return to the world of health care and medicine as head of a nonprofit organization. He had served as secretary since July
Dr. Skorton had succeeded G. Wayne Clough, another former university president, who had led the Smithsonian for seven years.
During Dr. Skorton’s four-year tenure, he oversaw important milestones and the completion of a $1.88 billion capital campaign. He also
was in charge of the Smithsonian’s strategic plan, which includes ambitions to reach a greater audience. But perhaps the Smithsonian’s
highest-profile success during his tenure was the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Mr. Bunch has spent his career in museums. He was the president of the Chicago Historical Society and had also worked at the
Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Mr. Bunch’s elevation to secretary is the first time in 74 years that a director of a
Smithsonian member museum has been selected to lead the institution as a whole.
In a statement, Mr. Rubenstein called Mr. Bunch “a deeply respected scholar, educator and leader.”
Mr. Case said that after “birthing a wildly successful start-up within the Smithsonian,” Mr. Bunch had “a vision for driving cross-institutional
collaboration to create a virtual Smithsonian that can reach everybody, everywhere.”
Mr. Bunch said it would be difficult to leave behind the museum that he had helped to create, especially since he had hired so many of the
people on its staff. He said the search committee had approached him. “I was a happy guy,” he said, “with the best office in D.C.”
He said he would work to explain to staff on Tuesday just why he was leaving and how closely he thought their work, their
accomplishments now relate to the new job ahead of him.
“I will tell them,” he said, “what they have done is they have modeled what is possible in museums in a place like the Smithsonian.”
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Graham Bowley is an investigative reporter on the Culture Desk. He also reported for The Times from Afghanistan in 2012. He is the
author of the book “No Way Down: Life and Death on K2.”
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