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Alumnus Lonnie Bunch

By Patty Housman

Lonnie Bunch and students at NMAAHC

Lonnie Bunch (center) greets AU students at NMAAHC.

College of Arts and Sciences alumnus Lonnie Bunch (BA history '74 and MA history '76) is making headlines as the founding director of the Smithsonian's new National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).

The museum opened last September to sold-out crowds and critical acclaim. The New York Times wrote, "It's here at last, here at last. And it's more than just impressive. It's a data-packed, engrossing, mood-swinging must-see."

Bunch, who worked on the museum for more than a decade before its opening, is widely credited for its breadth and ambition. "The history exhibit of the Smithsonian's new memorial of blackness is triumphant and crushing at once," wrote Vann R. Newkirk II for The Atlantic, "both a celebration of how far black people have come in an ongoing struggle for equality, and a reminder of the near impossibility of that struggle."

The new museum is remarkable in many ways. The 400,000-square-foot building sits on a five-acre site—the last available spot on the National Mall—in the shadow of the Washington Monument. Former President Barack Obama led the dedication and the ribbon-cutting ceremony. In its inaugural half year, the museum has welcomed nearly 1.3 million visitors through its doors and has built its permanent collection to include more than 40,000 artworks, historical objects, documents, and photographs. The museum continues to generate an unprecedented level of interest on a local, national, and global scale. On any given day, lines consistently snake around the building, filled with timed entry pass holders and hopeful others who are waiting for a limited number of walk-up passes.

NMAAHC viewed from the Mall.

Bunch and the Building of a Museum

In 2005, Bunch was hired as the founding director of the NMAAHC—and tasked with doing everything necessary to open the museum. Bunch seemed like the natural choice for this formidable job. At the time, he was the president of the Chicago Historical Society. He is also a nationally known educator, curator, and author who has written extensively about the African American experience in the United States. During his 30-plus year career, he has held several positions at the Smithsonian Institution, including associate director for curatorial affairs at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History (NMAH), where he led the team that developed the major exhibition The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden. Prior to that, he served as the assistant director for curatorial affairs at NMAH, where he developed the Smithsonian's America exhibition, which explored the history, culture, and diversity of the United States. He also served as the curator of his- tory and program manager for the California Afro-American Museum in Los Angeles.

When Bunch first started at the NMAAHC, he had no budget, no building, no con- firmed building site, no staff— and no collections. In fact, the museum did not own one single object. Over the next decade, Bunch spearhead a daunting multitude of responsibilities and decisions. He developed the museum's vision and mission, raised more than $500 million in public and private funding, oversaw building design and construction, man- aged staffing and publicity, and built key partnerships across the nation—all while collecting thousands of artifacts documenting several centuries of African American life, art, history, and culture.

"We found treasures for the collections you would never imagine," said Bunch. The museum opened with 11 inaugural exhibitions featuring more than 3,000 objects, photographs, and videos. Highlights included Nat Turner's Bible, a segregation-era Southern Railway car, Harriet Tubman's shawl (and 38 other items that once belonged to Tubman), Chuck Berry's red Cadillac, an airplane flown by Tuskegee airmen, and an extensive collection of art and photography documenting everyday Black life.

The Contemplative Court, NMAAHC, with Martin Luther King inscription. The Contemplative Court, NMAAHC.
 

A College of Arts and Sciences Alumnus

Bunch, who received his undergraduate and graduate degrees in history at American University, credits his professors for creating a close-knit community and for challenging him to be the best historian he could be. He said he found a second home at AU, one that provided the kind of intellectual rigor and academic curiosity that stayed with him his entire life.

"I would not be in this position if it wasn't for AU," he said at a university presentation last spring. "I was very fortunate to work with people like [History Professor] Alan Kraut, people who both challenged and nurtured me. And what AU did for me was help bring a sense of order and structure to somebody who just loved history and didn't really know what you could do with it and how to use it."

Bunch and the Making of a Historian

"History has always been something that has been crucially important to me," Bunch said. His interest in the subject began at a very young age when his grandfather, who started his life as a sharecropper and ended it as a dentist, showed him a book with photographs of unidentified African American children from the 1870s. His grandfather said it was a shame that the children were labeled as "anonymous," and that no one knew anything about their lives.

Bunch said this was the exact moment that got him interested in looking back in time to understand what people's lives were like.

Bunch, who grew up in the town of Belleville, outside Newark, NJ, said he was confused as a child about why some people treated him well, and why others did not. "So, part of history was a way for me both to escape—to look back at a different time—but also try to understand a little bit about race in America," he said. "To understand why certain people would embrace you and why other people wouldn't let you in their backyard. And so for me it was personal. And then it became something that I realized would help us all understand the lives we live if we understood the past."

Understanding these contradictions and complexities of race in the United States is at the heart of Bunch's hopes for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. "The museum will give the public what it wants, but also what it needs," he said. "The museum will tell the unvarnished truth, but will also help people find joy."