The Smithsonian Institution reached into its own history yesterday and selected Lonnie G. Bunch, a former Smithsonian curator, to be the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Bunch, 52, is president of the Chicago Historical Society, where in the past four years he has led the museum through a reorganization and capital campaign.
Lonnie G. Bunch will be founding director of the new museum.
Bunch said yesterday he couldn't say no to the Smithsonian's offer. "What I realized and what ultimately convinced me is that the Chicago Historical Society had nurtured my soul. But helping to create the museum was nurturing my ancestors, and that was too powerful a notion," he said.
His mission as founding director will be very similar to the task undertaken by W. Richard West Jr., director of the National Museum of the American Indian. West guided the museum for more than 15 years, from conception to its opening last fall.
The campaign for an African American museum endured several starts and stops for decades on Capitol Hill. Legislation authorizing the museum was finally enacted in 2003. The Smithsonian then began the tasks of developing the museum and choosing a location.
But very little has been decided.
"One of the challenges is that this is a start-up," Bunch said. "Even though a great deal of work has been done by the Smithsonian, you have the practical challenge of building a staff. You have to decide what is this entity called the National Museum of African American History and Culture. And you have profound fundraising challenges."
What he has done previously, he said, prepared him for taking on the development of an important, and closely watched, institution. "At this stage in my career, I didn't want to do anything that was easy. I want to continue to learn and do a challenging job that would have an impact on the country." Bunch, a native of New Jersey, earned his bachelor and master's degrees from American University.
"Lonnie Bunch is a distinguished historian and a skilled leader," Smithsonian Secretary Lawrence M. Small said. "With his many talents and vast experience, he's perfectly suited to take on the exciting task of creating the new Smithsonian museum."
Bunch knows the inner workings of the Smithsonian well. From 1989 to 2000, he worked at the National Museum of American History as a curator and administrator. He led the team that in 2000 produced "American Presidency: A Glorious Burden," a sprawling permanent exhibition that showed how the pressures of the office shaped occupants of the White House. It went from idea to opening in eight months, a record for most museums.
For six years, as the museum's associate director for curatorial affairs, Bunch managed 14 departments with 150 people.
He said he understands the politics of the question of where the museum should be located. Congress asked the Smithsonian regents to consider four sites. One is the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building on the Mall; a second is opposite the Washington Monument at Constitution Avenue and 14th Street NW. The others are a short distance from the Mall. Last month President Bush said he favored a spot on the Mall.
"I understand there is an assessment being done on the four sites. I need to look at that to help make a recommendation to the secretary. My hope is that we can come to that decision as quickly as we can," Bunch said. Officials at the Smithsonian said the private study should be completed later this year.
Bunch is also familiar with the special mandates of black museums. From 1983 to 1989, he worked at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles, where he was curator of history and program manager.
Brent Glass, director of the National Museum of American History, has gotten to know Bunch through national organizations and foresees a good working relationship. "I am very committed to telling the story of America, and the African American story is part of that story. But the African American story is so rich and complex that it can be told in a number of venues," Glass said.
The nature of the museum is another challenge. "It is a challenge to make sure that this is a museum that allows people to revel in African American culture, but it is also a museum that says what it means to be an American. Everyone will want to come here because it will help us understand courage and resiliency and other traits," Bunch said.
At this early stage, he sees a museum that will address global concerns, such as how Britain is wrestling with issues of race, and one that will encourage people to explore other museums with important exhibits related to the black experience. For example, a show in Washington on black communities in the Lowcountry in South Carolina might also refer visitors to a museum in Charleston.
"As a historian there are few things that are off-limits," he said. "You have to think of the museum in many ways."