Last year, Lonnie G. Bunch III explained why the Smithsonian was holding a day-long symposium called “Mascots, Myths, Monuments and Memory.” Monuments to Confederate leaders, he said, began going up in public squares throughout the United States in the decades before and after the dawn of the 20th century, the same time that images of Native Americans began to be used as mascots, product labels and advertising logos.
“It’s all about white supremacy and racism,” said the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The affront to Native Americans and the treatment of this country’s African American population weren’t just about marginalization in everyday life but also about the erasure of their dignity in our historical consciousness.
“You can make them caricatures . . . and they fall outside of narrative history,” Bunch said in remarks quoted on the Smithsonian Magazine website.
The significance of Bunch’s appointment as the 14th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, announced Tuesday, goes far beyond the simple fact that he is the first African American to hold the job. The news was received ecstatically within the institution, not just because Bunch is smart and affable, and has on his résumé an unparalleled accomplishment, having served since 2005 as founding director of the Smithsonian’s newest franchise, the African American Museum, which opened in 2016. Bunch also is the first museum director to be named head of the Smithsonian in almost 75 years, which means he understands the museums, which are the Smithsonian’s greatest scholarly and public asset. But the importance of his tenure surpasses any institutional concerns.
That Bunch can talk comfortably, in public, about white supremacy could change not only the Smithsonian, but also the culture of the country it represents. Bunch’s comments last year were made about a symposium that looked across racial and ethnic lines, and across disciplines, and down the larger and multiple avenues of history. There’s no way to recognize the operation and impact of white supremacy without that kind of interdisciplinary worldview and the ability to range across all the disciplines incorporated in the Smithsonian’s scientific, cultural, historical and artistic mandate. And there’s no way to make sense of the pervasiveness of white supremacy without the kind of experience Bunch has spent a lifetime gathering.
Just as important, there’s no hope of putting that knowledge to good use if it can’t be widely shared with the widest possible audience. Here again, there’s no one better for the job, as a public historian and the face of an institution that must, by definition, put forward unpleasant facts and discomfiting truths, than Lonnie Bunch.
Bunch is a Smithsonian insider, which puts him in a unique position to grapple with the institution’s history, which is bound up in complicated ways with the history of white supremacy.
In 1903, what was then known as the National Museum appointed a young researcher named Ales Hrdlicka to be a curator of “physical anthropology,” which was at the time largely a “science” of studying racial features and physical types. Hrdlicka went on to be an important and influential leader at the Smithsonian, studying the noses and ears and hair color of “The Old Americans,” by which he meant not Native Americans but European settlers who arrived before the admixture of Italians and Jewish people. Hrdlicka was a supporter of important eugenicists, including Charles Davenport, and though he sometimes differed with other “scientific” racists, he was sympathetic to the eugenic ideal of improving the species through careful selection of “superior” types.
That kind of science was embedded for decades into the Smithsonian, as it was into other museums and academic departments. The legacy isn’t just in musty, old and now discredited journals, but also in statues and paintings, novels and poems, and in deep-seated ideas about whom museums should serve and welcome. Museums are in the business of telling us what we look like, sometimes by measuring our crania, and sometimes by making our likeness.
It has been decades since Hrdlicka served his many years at the Smithsonian, but it hasn’t been so long since the Enola Gay controversy, in which critics of an exhibition about the U.S. war with Japan and the dropping of the atomic bomb successfully gutted an important Smithsonian show. That controversy is remembered largely because of its coverage of the debate about the U.S. decision to use atomic weapons, but the deeper issue was also about race. The exhibition was forthright about the racial overtones in play in the U.S. prosecution of the war against imperial Japan, and that rankled the institution’s critics.
The current secretary of the Smithsonian, David J. Skorton, has largely managed to avoid the kinds of controversies that perennially dog the institution, including the decision by his predecessor, Wayne Clough, to censor an exhibition devoted to LGBT themes in portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery. Bunch is unlikely to be so lucky, especially given sporadic but disturbing racist incidents, including the appearance of nooses at two Smithsonian museums in 2017.
Bunch also takes over at a moment of extreme peril in human history, and he will lead perhaps the only institution in American life that has both the intellectual capacity and the public credibility to confront the three greatest dangers we now face: climate change, the cultural and technological corruption of democratic processes, and white supremacy and neo-nationalism. These things will be increasingly interconnected, as social media fans the flames of division and make us more stupid and passive about the twilight of the Anthropocene, and as climate change exacerbates existing tensions and further sorts the planet’s population into winners and losers.
But the fact that Bunch can utter the words “white supremacy” is occasion for hope. White supremacy isn’t just a chronic and defining condition of American cultural life. Learning how to recognize it, seeing it in its manifold fullness and historical persistence, requires agility of mind and breadth of learning. It isn’t necessarily the key that unlocks all the world’s problems, but if you can anatomize it and explain it to Americans, you can probably solve a host of other problems, too. Bunch has long since demonstrated he can do exactly that.