Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C., was in suburban River Forest last week to speak at Dominican University’s commencement.
During a roughly 30-minute conversation, he also waded into contemporary waters, addressing everything from #MeToo and Bill Cosby’s place in the museum to President Trump and Kanye West’s controversial “slavery was a choice” statement. The following responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
On the origins of the museum
The National Museum of African American History and Culture was basically a startup. I started with a staff of two — me and one other person — in 2005. While it was clearly a small group, one of the great strengths of my career has been that I know scholars and museum people everywhere, so I was able to draw on that to help people figure out what this museum should be.
My most important job was to convince people that this would happen, because the idea for this museum had been floating around since 1913, but nobody was really ready for it. In some ways, it was like a political campaign. I had to figure out the vision, how to build support and relationships.
On the bipartisan coalition that built the museum
On the Hill, I was able to get support from people like Rep. Danny K. Davis and Bobby Rush and some new kid named Obama. It helped to have that, but even more importantly, there were North Side Republicans like John Porter who helped me cross the political divide.
George W. Bush was also important to this. He had not only signed the law authorizing the museum in 2003, but there were people who said, ‘Don’t build it on the mall.’ But Bush said, no, this museum needs to be on the mall. And because he was a Republican, he could convince people. Laura Bush even agreed to serve on my board.
On opening the museum
We broke ground in 2012 and it took four years to build. We opened in September 2016. Obama had asked me to make sure that he got to open the museum, so that was one of my commitments to the president. I remember going into construction meetings and saying, ‘I was hanging out with the president and he’d like to have you guys move a little quicker,’ so that kind of helped.
That was an amazing day. To have the Chief Justice of the United States there and my person hero, Congressman John Lewis, was unbelievably humbling. You’re sitting up there, looking out at this sea of people, thousands of them, and every celebrity wanted to be there — Oprah, Samuel L. Jackson, Colin Powell. You find yourself thinking, ‘Oh, my God, what am I doing? How did I do this?’ And you realize all of these people are there because the staff worked so hard to open that museum.
On the Chicago area’s representation in the museum
Chicago’s history is a history that has shaped the nation’s political, racial and economic history, so it was clear that Chicago would have a presence in the new museum.
We have a pew from Quinn Chapel [the oldest black church, and longest-held property by African Americans, in Chicago] that gives people a sense of the religious history of Chicago. We’ve also collected issues of the Chicago Defender to give people a sense of how that newspaper changed the tint and tone of everything in the North. There’s also Emmett Till’s Casket. There are a lot of things.
On whether or not President Trump has had an effect on the museum’s operations
The Trump administration doesn’t have any operational effect on the museum. Our budgets have been strong. President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have visited the museum. As people begin to look at civil rights and race in America, the museum has become a pilgrimage site.
On the impact of #MeToo on the museum’s curation
We have material in the museum from the Black Lives Matter movement and #MeToo, and have done programs around many of these issues, including a program on Confederate monuments. The museum recognizes that it has to be as much about today and tomorrow as it is about yesterday, so I also want to wrestle with these questions.
There are some things we do now and some things we’ll wait and grapple with down the road, but we want to make sure that we collect material, oral histories and ideas around these stories. Our job is to collect today for tomorrow, as well as collect yesterday for today.
On Bill Cosby’s current place in the museum
There was an article in the New York Times that quotes some of the women who accused Cosby. They said that we should have him in the museum and response is pretty simple. I’m a historian of Black America. So much of Black America has been erased. I don’t erase history.
So, Cosby is in the museum, but we also made it clear that, at this point, his reputation and legacy has been damaged. We’ll also change a label to say that he’s been convicted. But I will never erase history — that has really hurt the black community. Anybody who expects us to erase history is just downright wrong.
On Kanye West’s statement that ‘400 years of slavery was a choice’
The most important thing a museum does is educate. What you hope is that people get an understanding of this history and slavery is part of it — without a doubt.
When we did our initial surveys in the beginning, slavery was the number one thing people wanted to know about and the number one thing people didn’t want to know about. We hope that everyone who comes into the museum understands that slavery isn’t just a black story — it’s a story that shaped the country. It’s a story about pain and brutally, but also about strength and resilience.
On the national museum’s commitment to local museums
We knew we couldn’t build this museum without standing on the shoulders of many other black museums, so part of this was a chance to be the kind of national museum with resources that may not have always been available to other institutions.
Small institutions … would reap the benefit of being involved with something called the Association of African American Museums, which includes large and small museums. They help get them support and money. We always encourage institutions to reach out to that group.