Lonnie G. Bunch, founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, has had the same motto for much of the past decade. “Of course it’s going to happen,” he says when questioned about the opening, the progress or pretty much anything connected with the under-construction museum set to open in fall 2015.
“As much as I knew how complicated this was going to be — building on the site, getting staff — it’s 10 times more complicated than I ever imagined,” Bunch says.
Bunch, who says there’s not a U.S. airport he hasn’t touched down at in the past two years, credits Smithsonian support and random well-wishes from the public for helping to keep him going. It’s been a faith walk he says — a belief in the African American ability to improvise, to be strategic and nimble. “I really do believe there are a whole lot of ancestors helping to make this happen,” Bunch says.
Fundraising: Of the estimated $500 million cost — to be funded in an even split between public and private dollars — $345 million has been raised. Congress so far has given the museum $195 million, and $150 million has been raised from foundations and, increasingly, corporations and individuals. In June, media titan Oprah Winfrey donated $12 million, and her name will go on a 350-seat theater in recognition. There are other donations — “nothing I can talk about” — in the works, Bunch says, but “we have over 55,000 members, most at the $1,000-and-less level. It’s a good example of the kind of ownership that is occurring around the country.”
Acquisitions: Bunch calls the Medal of Honor — the nation’s highest military honor — awarded to
an African American soldier in the Korean War,
and acquired for the museum in late September, “barrier-breaking.” No black soldiers in World War II were awarded a Medal of Honor. The medal is to be the centerpiece in a military history gallery.
A protective amulet in the shape of slave shackles, used by the Lobi tribe of Burkino Faso, Ivory Coast and Ghana to keep slave traders away, is one of the artifacts “that makes you cry,” Bunch says of the April acquisition.
Two large artifact installations are coming by year’s end. One is a segregated Southern railway car created in the late 1920s and refurbished in the 1940s, when it seemed Jim Crow would always be law and custom. The other is a guard tower from the Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, which leased out prisoners as post-Civil War slave labor and became notorious for brutality. Both these large artifacts, currently in Sterns, Ky., will be lifted into the museum by cranes on Constitution Avenue.
Construction: A planned bridge on Constitution Avenue has been replaced by plans for walls and landscaping, and almost all the concrete has been poured. Work on the museum, which broke ground in 2012, is moving at a “very good pace,” Bunch says. An opening in late fall 2015 is still planned, although he says he “wouldn’t be surprised” if a delay pops up, as they often do in big construction projects.