On June 16, 2019, scholar and educator Lonnie Bunch, III, who is the founding director of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture (NMAAHC), will make history. That’s when he assumes the helm as the 14th Secretary of the the 19-museums of the Smithsonian Institution; its nine research centers, and the National Zoo. Mr. Bunch’s appointment is historic for many reasons: He is the first African-American secretary; the first historian, and the first Smithsonian Museum Director to ascend to the position of Secretary in 74 years. His appointment made headlines around the world!
The Board of Regents, which was responsible for Mr. Bunch’s appointment, said in its announcement that Mr. Bunch was a “special person with equal parts talent and passion.” The former president of the Chicago Historical Society and the former historian at California African-American Museum, Mr. Bunch guided the NMAACH from concept (with no budget and one staff member) to completion. Today, NMAACH is the Smithsonian’s most-visited complex with more than four million people passing through its doors since the grand opening in September 2016.
In an interview with the Washington Infomer, Mr. Bunch said his goals for the world’s largest museum include encouraging an inclusive audience at all Smithsonian properties. “Maybe the most important impact of the museum is that people of all races, political points of view, economic status, all come together and sometimes they debate but often what they do is marvel at the history and they share their own stories,” he is quoted as saying. “What I want is for the Smithsonian to be that place where everybody comes and learns about science and the environment or understands the world of technology and how the challenges of diversity in this country go hand in hand.”
Mr. Bunch takes over as the Smithsonian approaches its 175th anniversary and he will be facing a slew of challenges—the need for technological advances; infrastructure repairs; Congressional funding; the expansion of diversity and inclusion amongst the staff, and a push to establish museums dedicated to Latinx and women’s history. Asked about these challenges, Mr. Bunch replied in an interview with Smithsonian Magazine:
“As a historian, my whole career has been about expanding the canon, about making sure that you understand that the only way you can understand America are through these different lenses—the Latino community, through issues of gender, through African-Americans. So, I’m very supportive of the notion that the Smithsonian needs to engage these issues.”
Mr. Bunch’s new position is in line with recent international trends of promoting African-Americans to executive leadership and curatorial positions, which I wrote about for Arts & Culture Connections earlier this year. Given all of the accolades in response to Mr. Bunch’s appointment, it’s clear that inclusion and equity will continue to be important values for the world of arts, history and culture to uphold. I believe this promotion also is a reminder of how important it is to create a pipeline for diverse leaders and offer mentoring, training and promotion opportunities.
I had the opportunity to visit the NMAACH last year, and I wrote about it for Arts & Culture Connections. One of the key points I made was about the numerous non-African-American visitors, and how the museum’s welcoming environment embraced everyone who walked through the doors. NMAACH provides a cultural gateway to understanding the African-American experience within the context of the larger American experience.
I can only imagine how transformative Mr. Bunch’s appointment will be for all of the Smithsonian properties, and that’s why his promotion to the position of its 14th Secretary is great news for all of America.