Personal History

As director of the Smithsonian museum expected to open in 2015, Lonnie Bunch III says he is talking with African American elders to get
As director of the Smithsonian museum expected to open in 2015, Lonnie Bunch III says he is talking with African American elders to get "their blessing, and an artifact or two." (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 17, 2005

Lonnie G. Bunch III is settled in an office at L'Enfant Plaza lined with first-edition history books, various hats that he doesn't wear, and special photographs of family, the famous and the unknown.

On the job for just 10 weeks, the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture loves looking into history through photographs. Among his personal keepsakes are a couple of tintypes and daguerreotypes from the 1840s and 1850s.

"Photographs allow me to look into people's faces. I can say, 'Who is that person?' They remind me this is a person's history. While we remember slavery, we can't forget the enslaved," he says.

Bunch knows there are plenty of voices to tell the stories of the Kings, the Robinsons and the Powells, and plenty of stories to tell.

But history is made up of bits and pieces of everyday lives, not just those of the extraordinary achievers.

Bunch tells of his father's enjoyment of John Hope Franklin's "From Slavery to Freedom," and his explanation about black men and their mustaches. It "was a sign of freedom that you could choose to grow a mustache," the husky, bespectacled historian says. Now, the eminent Franklin sits on the scholarly committee for the museum.

"I want to talk to the elders within the African American community. I want to get their sense, and their blessing, and an artifact or two," Bunch says. He wants to pin down the stories about the beginnings of desegregation. "I've begun to think about the transformative generation, the link between the bad times and good times," he says.

But that's not all. His job over the long haul is to promote a history that has been a stepchild among academics and museums, and to establish the Smithsonian's credibility as the nation's custodian of that history.

It may be a very long haul. In all likelihood the African American museum won't open until about 2015. The Smithsonian Board of Regents must select a site, probably at its January meeting. Then the drive begins to raise the $300 million to $400 million needed for the building.

Staff must be hired and Bunch and others must sift through many ideas about its focus and exhibits, decide what to collect and then go about acquiring artifacts. He is mulling organizing a national collecting initiative.

"We've gotten, 70, 80, 90 calls, saying, 'We have some things,' " he says, including a call from someone who had two Ku Klux Klan robes.

Sitting back in his leather chair, Bunch leaves aside the taught history and thinks about how his own family illustrates one emerging aspect of the museum's timeline: the lives of black Americans in the 20th century.

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