Lonnie Bunch’s vision for the Museum of African American History and Culture
By DeNeen L. Brown,
Lonnie G. Bunch III is running fast through his childhood neighborhood in Belleville, N.J., running from a crowd of teenagers. “Catch the n-----” they shout, chasing 10-year-old Lonnie, who is the only black kid in his neighborhood.
Lonnie runs through back yards and playgrounds, finally collapsing on the lawn of a house he does not know. The teenagers turn the corner. Lonnie shuts his eyes. He hates that he lives in an all-white town. He hates the beating that may come. He hates, as he tells it now, “feeling so scared, so helpless and so alone.”
Just then, the door of the house opens, and a little white girl comes out. She positions herself between Lonnie and the crowd, and tells them to leave him alone.
It is in that moment that Lonnie realizes that race issues are complicated, never all white or all black. There is bad, yet there is good. And there are people in moments of history who have gathered enough courage to step across color lines.
That chase by angry white teenagers, Bunch says, became a “crucial episode” in his life, raising within him difficult questions about race and its ambiguities. “I needed to understand why race mattered so much,” Bunch says. Why some parents might let him play with their children but make him drink out of a garden hose rather than from a glass filled in the kitchen sink. “I thought history would help me.”
Almost 50 years later, Bunch, who was raised by two teachers and is a leading scholar in American and African American history, is the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. He is charged with a task so huge it is nearly paralyzing. Bunch must build a museum from scratch — but not just any museum. He must build the last museum slated to be constructed on the Mall. Beyond that, he must build a museum that will house, navigate and explain the atrocities and complexities of race in the Americas.
It is a task so daunting it wakes him at 2 in the morning. In those wee hours, he writes furiously — compiling lists, trying to solve issues, raising questions: How do you build a national museum that will not step on the territory of the regional museums that house African American history? How do you keep the staff motivated while waiting 10 years to see the fruition of its work? What are the most important themes for the exhibits? What artifacts are still out there?
“I realize the magnitude,” Bunch says, sitting in his office on a winter day. He is wearing a pale blue shirt and blue tie. He has just finished a lunch that consisted solely of a jar of Dole peaches. Around him, his staff plans Wednesday’s groundbreaking ceremony, which President Obama and other dignitaries are expected to attend.
“When I decided to take this job, I went through Smithsonian history to see who got to create national museums,” Bunch says. “Very few people get to be the leader of a national museum, and even fewer start from scratch.”
From 1983 to 1989, Bunch was the curator of history and program manager for the California Afro-American Museum in Los Angeles. From there, Bunch went to the Smithsonian and worked as a curator and administrator at the National Museum of American History. In 2000, he became president of the Chicago Historical Society. Four years later, Bunch returned to Washington to become the founding director of this museum.
Behind him, two large sheets of yellow paper, pinned to a bulletin board, serve as a challenging timeline. In green marker, Bunch has divided tasks into columns labeled by years. Under 2008, the first thing he wrote was: “Today. Raise $40 Million.” The goal in 2009 was the architectural design competition. By 2010, the design was to be initiated. By 2011, Bunch predicted he would break ground. “I missed that by a couple of months,” he says, “but I’m on target.” In the final column, Bunch has written: “Fall 2015; Museum opens to great excitement; Month-long celebration; Thanks and rest.”
He knows anything can happen between now and 2015. So he has pinned a sign to the timeline: “Keep Calm & Carry On.”
Bunch has had to raise $250 million in private funds, which was the goal set by Congress. The $250 million would be matched by congressional appropriations. And he has had to amass the collections to fill the nearly 380,000-square-foot museum, which will be built on five acres adjacent to the Washington Monument.
So far, he and his 11 curators have collected 25,000 artifacts from private collectors and people who call him offering items in their basements and attics. Bunch has made trips in person to collect — never knowing whether what he might find will be an inauthentic copy or something as rare as Harriet Tubman’s shawl and hymnal.
The collection he has amassed includes: a Pullman railroad car with whites and “colored” signs. A biplane used to train the Tuskegee Airmen; the neon “Soul Train Awards” sign; a jumpsuit from the late Godfather of Soul James Brown; a letter signed by the revolutionary Toussaint L’Ouverture; a slave badge; works of art by Charles Alston, John Biggers, Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, Lorna Simpson ;Emmett Till’s original casket; two Klan robes; a drinking fountain labeled “colored.”
Bunch hopes the museum will prick the hardest of emotions. He also hopes it will convey resiliency; a sense that African American history is American history; and a sense of reconciliation.
“I want people to realize, this is who we are as Americans. I’m not creating an African American museum just for African Americans.”
The museum is the 19th to open as part of the Smithsonian Institution, following the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, which opened in 2004, has been both praised and ridiculed.
“I can tell you everything critics will say. Most architectural critics will like the building because it is distinctive, but some of the cultural folks will say it should not be on the Mall because it’s different,” Bunch says. “I think we are going to get an amazing array of people who will love this museum and say it’s a pilgrimage [site], and we will get others who will say, ‘He didn’t make slavery painful enough,’ or, ‘He emphasized it too much.’ I expect to be criticized from all ideological perspectives. When that happens, I know we have done our job right.”
As part of that mission, Bunch will focus on histories as told by regular people. It is a passion he has had since he was a child reading with his grandfather, “Doc,” a former sharecropper who went to night school and became one of the first black dentists in Newark.
One of the books they read had a photograph of children from the 1870s. The caption read: “Unknown children.” Lonnie’s grandfather touched the picture. “He said, ‘Isn’t it a shame people could live their lives and die unknown?’ ”
Bunch says he became “fascinated with the past from that moment.”
The compulsion to document the unknown still drives him. Bunch’s days, which begin in the office at 7:15 a.m., are packed with meetings. He seems to talk nonstop, though he says he’d “rather be in a corner somewhere reading a book, watching an old movie, or writing.”
“I’m basically a scared introvert,” says Bunch. But his father taught him something that he will never forget. He’ll tell this last story, he says, then he has to go.
In ninth grade, Bunch was given an assignment to make a class presentation. “Most guys were doing the Yankees,” Bunch says, and he was looking for an easy topic like that. Instead, his father handed him a Reader’s Digest article headlined “What the Negro Has and Has Not Gained.”
Bunch resisted. “I said, ‘Dad, I’m the only black kid!’ He said, ‘You don’t have to, but at some point you have to confront things that scare you.”
Bunch decided to do the presentation, though he was terrified. “When the day came, the class was after gym, so I was sweating already. I stand in front of the class and say, ‘The title of my talk is “What the Negro Has and Has Not Gained.” ’ ”
The rest was a blur. Other than the fact that he got an A, the only thing Bunch remembers is his father’s admonition: “It’s not about not being afraid. It’s about recognizing you are afraid and still stepping ahead.”
It’s a lesson Bunch clings to at 2 a.m., when he awakes in his home in Shepherd Park overwhelmed by the task of building a museum that will stir the conscience of a country .
“That is when all the fears come,” Bunch says. “But I tell myself, I come out of a culture that believed when it should not have believed in a better day, that didn’t quit. You almost find yourself saying, ‘I can’t let them down.’ ”
And he doesn’t think he will. “I know what excellence looks like in a museum. There is no doubt we would raise the money, that we would find the collections. There is no doubt in my mind we will make a way out of no way.”