Lonnie Bunch, the curator on exhibit


Lonnie Bunch, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, watches a dream take shape. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Lonnie Bunch can’t walk three feet at the BET Honors pre-dinner reception this month without stopping to hug, accept well wishes and talk about the 380,000-square- foot museum he’s building from scratch on the National Mall.

In a room full of VIPs and stars, his celebrity is singular.

He huddles with Motown founder Berry Gordy to talk Detroit collaborations. There’s a brief chat with Georgetown professor and pundit Michael Eric Dyson about coming up with a Smithsonian program. There’s a quick hi-by with Attorney General Eric Holder.

“Next month, it comes out of the ground!” he enthuses about the construction to a guest whose name escapes him. His wife, Maria Marable-Bunch, right there whenever he looks up, offers suggestions.

A young server having difficulty passing through the crowd stops in front of Bunch, and he reassures her. “Don’t worry. Take your time,” he says good-naturedly. He keeps his common touch, though as founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, he is clearly on the move.

Bunch was joined by President Obama and other dignitaries in breaking ground for the 19th Smithsonian museum, a five-acre, $500 million project, with costs evenly split between public and private funds, two years ago.

And just like the river, he’s been running ever since.

There’s still about $100 million in private funds to be raised. There are artifacts from nearly 400 years of the African American experience to be collected, staff to hire, a massive construction process to oversee, and no time to waste.

Because the museum is supposed to open late next year.

Because black people have been feeling an urgency ever since they first got to this country.

Because some of them, including his father, have died waiting to have their stories told.

At the reception, Bunch and his wife make one slow revolution around the mezzanine of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, stopping each time someone calls his name.

“I’m amazed at how visible I am,” Bunch says. “That’s the job of the museum, but part of me can’t believe that its happening.”

Except in many ways, his top job has always been to believe.

The career arc

At the construction site adjacent to the Washington Monument, Bunch, 61, in a hard hat and safety glasses, points to the ceiling of what will be the 80-foot-deep history gallery. He was down in the massive pit a few weeks ago, but now he’s peering in, noting every new beam.

Last summer, problems with the water table forced engineers to make excavation changes, which cost an additional $20 million and potentially delays the opening which is scheduled for 2015, but which Bunch says may be adjusted. “We’ll see what happens over the next six or seven months that will determine for sure exactly our opening date.”

In November, the museum’s first artifacts were installed — a Jim Crow-era railcar and a 1930s guard tower from the Louisiana State Penitentiary known as Angola. They will be part of an inaugural segregation exhibition. On this day, parts of each are barely visible between scaffolding and plastic, but Bunch knows exactly where they are.

He visits the site at the beginning or end of almost every day, and he’s fluent in the language of poured concrete, metal pilings and loading docks curving around 14th Street. It’s true of anybody “who has been living with this for as long as I have,” says Bunch. “My job was to make everybody believe this would really happen, and first I had to believe it.”

His decision to leave Chicago, where he headed the Chicago Historical Society (now the Chicago History Museum) to take the founding director job in 2005, was animated by that faith, along with substantial doses of calculation.

“The reality is that I was willing to come back and do this job because I felt that in some ways, everything I had ever done pointed in this direction,” Bunch says.

Land where my fathers died

Prior to his four years in Chicago, he held a number of positions with the National Museum of American History, including overseeing the curatorial and collections management staff as associate director. For much of the 1980s, he was a curator and program manager for the California Afro American Museum in Los Angeles, which he helped to build. He held teaching positions at George Washington University and the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth and had been an education specialist at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum in the late 1970s, which is where he met Maria.

Bunch also brings lived history to the job — growing up in Belleville, N.J., as the son of educators. He has integration stories: how his father, who commuted 30 miles to teach chemistry because local schools were closed to him, suggested he do a presentation on “What the Negro Has and Has Not Gained” to his ninth grade class, in which he was the only nonwhite student. And stories of the failures of integration: like when he was a 10-year-old being chased through his neighborhood by a crowd of white teens yelling “catch the n----r.”

Mostly, it’s the stories of black people who lived and died without ever being recorded by history that inspire him. The ones who raised their children, carried their burdens and tried every day, in ways small and large, to negotiate with their country for a little more operating space. Those are the ancestors Bunch wants most to honor. They include his father.

“My dad died 14 months ago, and part of my urgency in getting this building complete was that a community has waited too long for this story,” Bunch says. “I wanted my father to realize not so much that I did something, but that this museum was a way for average people like him to be remembered. And that his ancestors were smiling when this museum would open. And his death, as hard as that was, was made more difficult by the fact that the building wasn’t here yet. He had never been to the site. He had never seen any of the artifacts.”

Bunch always credits staffers behind the scenes who allow him to be so visible. And he never forgets to single out his “bride,” Maria, director of education and public programs for the National Archives. The two met in 1979, when she was a George Washington University graduate student interning at the National Air and Space Museum.

“We met at the Smithsonian, and who would have known back we’d be back doing such a special project,” says Maria. She calls this the busy season of their lives. The couple live in the Shepherd Park neighborhood of Washington and have two adult daughters. Her full-time position has its own demands.

“We’re always looking at each other’s schedule,” she says. “It’s not like I’m constantly having to work around my husband. There are times when I need him with me professionally.”

Still, their shared vision is getting the museum built. Three or four nights a week, either Lonnie or the two of them have someplace to be; a museum program, a formal dinner, a speech, presentation, media appearance, meet-and-greet with donors. “We’re always thinking about what is going to be important for the museum. Where do we need to be, and who do we need to be talking with and sharing with?” says Maria. Building a museum from scratch, you have to think about everything little thing, she says. But her conviction equals her husband’s. “We live our lives saying there is not another option here. This is going to get done.”

Warm moment in frozen foods

A former director for the Museum of American History once told Bunch that in order to be a successful director at the Smithsonian, you had to have your own ability to raise funds, and your own relationships on Capitol Hill. It’s advice he took to heart.

Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), one of the most powerful men in Congress and a longtime supporter of the museum’s appropriations, calls Bunch enormously suited for his job.

At an event in a South Carolina high school, “I watched as he interacted with people bringing artifacts that had been stored in their attic and under their bed,” Clyburn says. Charleston is nationally historic, the African American community in Charleston is central to that history, and “Lonnie demonstrated an understanding of that few people could,” says Clyburn.

That intuitiveness about what’s important to people, and how to convert that into donations is key to Bunch’s success. “In politics, the voting public recognizes when people have internalized what they do, what they feel,” Clyburn says. “Whether they’re speaking from the heart or just mouthing the words. With Lonnie, you get the impression that this is something that’s important, not just to people who visit the museum, but important to him. That’s why he can walk in the room and everybody knows he’s there.”

This includes the fabulously wealthy, but also the security guards, waitresses, and regular folks who walk up to him. They take the museum, and by extension Bunch, very personally. One church lady approached him at the grocery store. “She said, ‘I know who you are, and I’m praying for you,’ ” Bunch recalls. Then she asked if he would pray with her, right there, near the frozen foods.

“I know God hears us everywhere, but is it okay if we don’t pray right now?” he said gently. “She was gracious, and I thanked her and we kept walking.” Such are the dances in his day.

“He has always been able to speak to the man on the streets as well as the upper echelons,” says Aurelia Brooks, co-founder of the California African American Museum, who worked with Bunch for much of the 1980s, as the museum was being built. She calls him intellectual, ambitious and very good with people. He’s up to the job of building a national museum, “even though this is 10 times more exacting, I’m sure, than when we were trying to get our building up and running in L.A.”

She calls the need to “make the case” his biggest challenge in a difficult fundraising environment. To do that, he needs advocates, other voices, Brooks says, although she knows from experience that it can be hard to delegate.

‘Sleepless nights’

Since 2008, nearly $250 million in federal construction dollars has been appropriated. General Motors donated $1 million last month and other private donations, including from $10 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, $2 million from local philanthropists Earl and Amanda Stafford and a total of $13 million from Oprah Winfrey, whose name will go on a 350-seat theater have brought the total to nearly $400 million raised. In fiscal 2005, the museum had an operating budget of nearly $4 million. It is around $34 million for fiscal 2014, money for acquisitions and the salaries to staff up. Bunch started with two people; he is up to 120 staffers and contractors and expects to hire an additional 30 in the next year, including people to help secure the $100 million in private donations the museum still needs.

Bunch calls the end result — the museum opening on the Mall in late 2015, or shortly thereafter — a foregone conclusion. But there is a staggering amount to do between then and now.

“You accept the fact that this is going to take a toll on you,” Bunch says. “You accept the fact that you are going to put in extra hours, that there’s going to be sleepless nights.” In an interview last fall, Bunch invoked the late Chicago mayor Harold Washington, who became Chicago’s first and only black mayor in 1983. After raising a shovel at a morning groundbreaking, he later collapsed at his desk and died of heart failure in 1987. He, too, was a man of the people, and Bunch vows that will not be him.

Stamina is crucial to his success. The morning of the reception started with a 7:30 review of an exhibition script and included meetings, calls, a presentation and award acceptance, and a review of hiring plans before rushing home to change.

Even with that schedule, “You find the ways to protect yourself,” he says. “You go to the gym every other day.”

Recently Bunch, preoccupied by a speech he had to give to the NFL Players Association before the Super Bowl, was watching the film classic “All About Eve” at 2 in the morning.

What does that have to do with black history? Nothing. But Bunch says he would have been a filmmaker if he weren’t an historian. It’s his great escape.

The reality is “people have certain expectations. They expect you to be able to move them with the stories you tell. They expect you to be very clear about why General Motors should support this museum. And so, in many ways, the challenge is that you are never winging it. You are always trying to make sure you have thought this out carefully and that you can give the best presentation you can.

“What it really means is that you give everything you can, then collapse when you can’t.”

The happiest moments

Bunch’s younger daughter called him a while back to say she realized that once the building was complete, “as long as there is an America, there’s a chance for the world to understand the African American experience.”

“It was so moving,” he says. “I think that was the moment that made me happiest in the last couple of years.”

Another happy moment seems to come after that reception in early February, after he’d talked to everyone he could, when he asked a photographer to take a picture of “me and my bride” on his cellphone.

The historian in him knows one thing for sure: If the museum is historic, then every handshake, every dollar raised, every bit of get up and hit it that he does every day is all part of that history.

Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.

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