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Smithsonian’s new secretary, Lonnie Bunch III, faces political and financial challenges

Lonnie G. Bunch III, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, will become the next secretary of the Smithsonian. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Lonnie G. Bunch III — the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture — has been appointed secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, becoming the first African American leader in its 173-year history.

The Smithsonian’s Board of Regents introduced Bunch as the institution’s 14th secretary on Tuesday morning. He succeeds David J. Skorton, who announced his resignation in December and whose last day is June 15.

Bunch, 66, takes over a quasi-federal institution of 19 museums, nine research centers and the National Zoo that is supported by 7,000 employees and a $1.5 billion annual budget.

As he ascends to one of the most powerful positions in the museum world, Bunch inherits a host of challenges that will test his political, fundraising and management skills. As the world’s largest museum and education organization, the Smithsonian has struggled to catch up with technological advances, has a massive and costly backlog of maintenance needs, and faces pressure to add branches focused on American Latinos and women. Efforts to improve diversity and inclusion in staff, collections and exhibitions are underway but are far from complete, and a recent mandate to connect a sprawling bureaucracy of independent museums hasn’t gotten much traction.

Bunch acknowledges the problems but prefers to focus on the possibilities.

“I am cognizant of the challenges that the institution faces during the next decade, but more importantly I am excited by the potential,” Bunch told an audience Tuesday that included his 91-year-old mother, Montrose Bunch, associates from the African American Museum and Smithsonian officials.

“I revel in the opportunity to work closely with the regents and with my gifted and dedicated colleagues — from scientists to curators, to educators, to security officers to volunteers — to help the Smithsonian become the institution American needs and America deserves.”

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Bunch’s appointment was cheered across the Smithsonian, with many employees pointing to his insider status as an advantage. He is the first Smithsonian director to become secretary in 74 years, and the first historian in the job. He will start June 16.

“What does the Smithsonian do best? We do museums best, and we picked the top person from our top museum, the leader of one of our crown jewels,” said search committee member Stephanie Stebich, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Bunch’s reputation among his colleagues, his fundraising skills both in Congress and with private donors, and his experience at three Smithsonian museums separated him from the pack, said David Rubenstein, the chairman of the Board of Regents. The success of the African American Museum, the newest Smithsonian, was another important factor.

“He has achieved one of the most impressive accomplishments at the Smithsonian in decades, building the African American Museum from scratch,” Rubenstein said.

Bunch will now face the task of bringing the same vision and excitement to the Smithsonian, an institution founded in 1846 and burdened with an unwieldy infrastructure and a culture that some say rewards caution over innovation.

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Bunch became director of the African American Museum in 2005 and, over the next 11 years, oversaw the design, location and construction of the 400,000-square-foot building on the Mall, adjacent to the Washington Monument. He also led the effort to amass a collection of 40,000 items.

Showcasing political skill and fundraising prowess, Bunch secured $270 million in federal money and $317 million in private donations by the time the museum’s doors opened on Sept. 24, 2016. Oprah Winfrey, Will Smith and Stevie Wonder were among the celebrities who joined President Barack Obama, former president George W. Bush and congressman and civil rights icon John Lewis to celebrate a museum whose mission is to tell the story of America through the perspective of the black experience.

“The day when we opened was America at its best. It was when people crossed racial and political lines and came together for the greater good. I’ll take that lesson with me,” Bunch said in an interview Monday. “I want to help the museums become as community-centered and as exciting to the public as the African American Museum is.”

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The long-awaited museum immediately became one of Washington’s top attractions and has welcomed more than 4 million people in its first 2½ years. Spencer Crew, a history professor at George Mason University, will serve as interim director.

The African American Museum changed the culture of the Smithsonian, said Eduardo Diaz, director of the Smithsonian Latino Center.

“It drove home the importance of a commitment to diversity and inclusion,” Diaz said. “It brought the issue to the forefront. Directors are now thinking about how [they] manage diversity and inclusion. What exhibitions are they researching? Whose experiences are they researching?”

Bunch’s promotion sends a strong signal, Diaz added. “The message is clear. It will be heeded with him in charge.”

That message extends to the larger museum field, which is working to address issues of diversity and equity, said Laura Lott, president and chief executive of the American Alliance of Museums.

“His appointment to this prestigious national position, which is the closest thing the United States has to a ministry of culture, sets a tone for a new era that we need to be more inclusive,” she said.

Bunch must also address the Smithsonian’s lackluster performance in the digital realm. The institution’s strategic plan calls for its virtual programs to reach 1 billion people a year by 2022. It’s a steep task, but not impossible, colleagues say.

“The Smithsonian found itself behind the curve in terms of technology a decade ago. We’ve been pedaling really fast to catch up, but we’re not there yet,” said Kevin Gover, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. “The challenge is to get ahead of the curve. Lonnie, having been here and done the job he’s done, he comes in knowing where the challenges are.”

Drowned out in the enthusiasm for Bunch’s appointment are questions about the scale of the job. The two previous secretaries were former university presidents with experience managing vast operations with thousands of employees and billion-dollar budgets. Bunch brings the knowledge of the museum field they lacked, but his management experience is on a different scale: The African American Museum has a staff of 163 and a $40 million annual budget, a fraction of the Smithsonian’s.

“There are no other museums at this scale in our country,” Lott said of the Smithsonian. “Like any of the major agencies or big corporations, it’s all about the team.”

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Bunch’s first stint at the Smithsonian was as an education specialist at the National Air and Space Museum from 1978 to 1979. After a few years at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles, he returned in 1989, joining the National Museum of American History, where he moved up the ranks to become associate director of curatorial affairs, a position he held for six years. In 2001, he became president of the Chicago Historical Society.

“After serving in three museums, I have touched all aspects of the Smithsonian,” Bunch said. “Hopefully, I can help to close the chasm that exists between the Castle [the centralized administrative offices] and the museums.”

Bunch was born in Newark in 1952 to two teachers and was raised in a predominantly Italian American neighborhood in Belleville, N.J. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from American University. He is married to Maria Marable-Bunch, the associate director of museum learning at the National Museum of the American Indian, and the couple has two grown daughters.

In addition to his museum work, Bunch has taught at numerous universities and written books on black military history, the American presidency and museums. His book “Call the Lost Dream Back: Essays on History, Race and Museums” was published in 2010, and “A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture During the Age of Bush, Obama, and Trump” will be published this fall.

In 2005, the American Alliance of Museums named Bunch one of the 100 most influential museum professionals. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2017, and last year, he was given the Phi Beta Kappa Award for Distinguished Service to the Humanities.