WASHINGTON — Lonnie G. Bunch III, who used his prodigious curatorial, fundraising, political and people skills to build the National Museum of African American History and Culture from scratch, was named the 14th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution on Tuesday. Bunch, a historian with more than 35 years in the museum field, will be the first African American in the institution’s 173-year history to lead its collection of 19 museums, nine research centers and the National Zoo.
“I’m excited to work with the Board of Regents and my colleagues throughout the Institution to build upon its legacy and to ensure that the Smithsonian will be even more relevant and more meaningful and reach more people in the future,” Bunch, 66, said in a press release.
Bunch told The Washington Post that being the first African American in the post “will open doors for others.”
As founding director of the African American history museum, Bunch oversaw the construction of its half-billion-dollar “green building,” a first on the National Mall. Since its September 2016 opening, the museum has welcomed 4 million visitors, and the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents cited that success as one of the factors that led to the selection of Bunch.
Bunch talked to The Undefeated in 2016 about the ways history has guided and strengthened him when the work gets hard. “Right in my office is a picture of a woman who was born a slave and she is walking up a hill, carrying a hoe that’s taller than her. A basket that’s heavy,” he said. When he felt stressed, “I look at her,” Bunch said. “And I think if she’s still walking tall, well, so can I.”
Now he’s hoping his appointment as secretary will help expand opportunities for African Americans.
In a 2000 article headlined “Flies in the Buttermilk: Museums, Diversity and the Will to Change,” published in the American Alliance of Museums’ magazine, Bunch wrote about the paucity of black faces at a national meeting of museum professionals. He quoted Al Green’s 1971 hit “Tired of Being Alone”: “I’m so tired of being alone, I’m so tired of being on my own.” The African Americans at the meetings would gather after a session to note, “There were just a few of us flies in the buttermilk. Reminding us, though, that we needed no reminder, that the museum field is awash in whiteness.”
In 2015, when Laura Lott became CEO of the American Alliance of Museums, she said she realized his article “could have been reprinted again in our magazine and it would still be relevant.”
People of color are 39% of the population but only 11% of museum audiences. Studies from art museums, which are about a quarter of the museum universe, show only 4% of leadership positions are held by African Americans, and Lott says those numbers are likely true throughout the museum world.
Bunch’s appointment to head the closest thing the nation has to a ministry of culture will provide representation and know-how that she hopes will make a difference.
“There’s the notion that you can’t be it if you don’t see it,” she said. Bunch’s lengthy experience in the museum field means he intimately “knows the problems and the challenges, the inherent structural racism and sexism and other -isms that kind of pervade the museum field. And so he’s worked with the American Alliance of Museums and other organizations to keep bringing that to people’s attention and find ways to combat it.”
This includes a push for diversity among museum boards, where the tone is set, budgets are allocated and decisions made — 46% are all white, and the rest skew older and whiter than the general public, Lott said.
The success of the museum, known affectionately as the “Blacksonian” — it’s the Smithsonian’s third-most visited museum in 2019 — represents Bunch using all his skills, connections and scholastic rigor. He coaxed money from institutions and people and got them to donate exhibit items from their attics, Lott said. “It’s Lonnie doing what Lonnie does.”
The selection of Bunch to lead the Smithsonian is a signal that the world is changing, museums are changing and the qualifications to lead these institutions are changing, Lott said. “Lonnie as both an African American man, and as an historian and a museum professional, is an example of that.”