Shuran Huang / NPR
Smithsonian museums, like many public spaces, have been closed for more than a year now. The buildings that once teemed with admirers of art, history and science are now largely empty. Before the pandemic hit the United States, the National Museum of African American History and Culture was one of the capital’s most sought-after destinations. So we decided to request a private (virtual) tour from Lonnie G. Bunch III, the Blacksonian creator and current secretary to the Smithsonian (translation: He runs the venue – all nineteen museums, the 21 library and the national zoo).
I spoke to Lonnie Bunch about how he first became interested in museums, how the coronavirus is affecting the Smithsonian family, and how it turned entry to the Blacksonian into the hottest ticket in town. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
When I was young, I was interested in museums. Why?
When I was 10 or 11 years old, it was the centenary of the Civil War. And I, like many children, wanted to know about the rebels and the Yankees. Once, my family was driving my car from my home in New Jersey to visit my mother’s family in North Carolina, and I saw these signs for museums and historical sites. But my dad never stopped. He always said, “I have to drive 20 more miles.”
On the way back, he didn’t stop at the historic sites either. But instead of going straight to New Jersey, he paused in front of the Smithsonian and said, “This is a place you can go to understand the history, science and culture, without worrying about how you will be treated because of the color of your skin.”
Little did I know I would eventually be working at the Smithsonian Institution. But I’ve always had a feeling that the Smithsonian is a potential place, a place that gives a child a fair chance to deal with the things that matter to him, regardless of race.
You have had a lot of different high-level jobs, but you are likely best known for your role in creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Talk about it a bit, and tell me: Does this museum have a title? Because the National Museum of African American History and Culture is a true mouthful.
As you know, I was able to control a lot, but not choosing the name. I think some people call it Blacksonian. For me, it’s just a “museum”, because I think in many ways he has tried to set a standard for who museums serve, what kind of stories they can tell, and how museums can be a place of equal importance. today and tomorrow As it is yesterday.
For me, the crafting of this museum was really based on several things. It is based on truth This is for 100 yearsPeople struggled to try to get something on the National Mall. And I felt this real commitment to fulfilling the dreams of previous generations, to make sure that all this work was not in vain. And I realized that if I could go back and build a museum with a group of people that reflected the richness and complexity of African American history for all, maybe I could care for the souls of my ancestors. And that has become so powerful for me not to take the opportunity at first.
It was difficult to sell the museum to some people. Some just got it right and thoughtYes, this is what the nation needs. This is what the Smithsonian Institution needs. But some people really thought you were planning a black museum of blacks, which made it kind of a tough sled. Talk about it a little.
Well, I guess there were people who felt this museum shouldn’t exist because maybe the story wasn’t that important. My idea was that the story of black America is too big to be in the hands of a single community.
In essence, the African American experience is the quintessential American experience. I wanted people to understand that if you wanted to know about the core American values of resilience, optimism, and spirituality, where would you look better than the African American community? And if you want to understand the limits of America’s promise, if you want to understand those moments in which this promise to America has been expanded to include so much more, look at the African American community.
People have really flocked to it – all kinds of people – and considered it theirs. He had a bit of a crowd control problem at first: He’s been the only Smithsonian to collect tickets for a really long time. So for people who have not had the opportunity to visit, describe a little the experience of being inside.
When approaching the building with it Aura of bronze color, You immediately realize this is different from anything else in the mall. The mall is where America learns what it means to be American, with the Capitol, the Lincoln Memorial, and many white marble buildings. Suddenly, this says there has been a dark presence in America that has often been overlooked or underestimated. So it really sets a different tone.
When you got in, you wanted to have an experience that would take you from the very beginnings of the slave trade, all the way through to today. When you go in, you go down the elevator and suddenly you’re surrounded by what Africa was like before the Europeans entered, and what Europe was like before the Africans came. But then it was dominated by the slave trade. There you see the names of the hundreds and hundreds of ships that carried Africans to the New World or the Caribbean. Then you explore how bondage Country form – instead of, Let’s talk about Jamestown, let’s talk about the Militants. Slavery shapes everything from Massachusetts to Jamestown, and we bring you a lot of slavery during the nineteenth century. You can actually see the slave hut where people live. And we really take you through a very difficult history moving from slavery to today.
Then it begins to climb. And as you progress, while still dealing with a difficult history, you are suddenly now looking at things like music, sports, fashion, and theater. So what I wanted was not for people to think that it was a linear march of progress. Because the way the museum is done, you can go up and back, up and back, and you get a workout. But I wanted people to realize that there is hope in this story, that here is a community that believes in an America that hasn’t believed He. She. Here is a community that constantly challenges, urges, and strives to help America live up to its proclaimed ideals. But it was the community that also found joy when he used his toes of Aretha Franklin or Duke Ellington.
I wanted this to be a place that would give you the tension between the moments when you might cry as you meditate on the pain of slavery and apartheid and the moments when you find joy and resilience.
You have said that you want the Blacksonian to be a museum not only of things in the past, but that he should look at things in the future. What is the Smithsonian Institution doing with its museums to kind of stay in the public eye while the coronavirus still lingers? Can I actually visit some museums to get some emotional cultural support I’ve talked about?
When we closed the Smithsonian Museums in March last year, it made clear that the buildings were closed, but the Smithsonian was open. So we focused on making sure that we could do a lot more virtually. We immediately put a lot of our educational materials on the Internet. We created something called Learning LabWhere teachers can log in and use Smithsonian groups to develop lesson plans and the like. But the key was the realization that not only were there teachers trying to teach remotely, but that the parents suddenly became teachers. So we wanted to be that trusted source where they can get information.
And it all got us thinking What is the new normal for the Smithsonian Institution? How does the Smithsonian Institution make sure it does important work – not just work, but fun, entertaining, educational, and meaningful? And in the end, what you want out of it is for people to look at the Smithsonian Institution and say, They helped me understand the history of vaccines and how vaccines like the polio vaccine ended a pandemic. or They helped me think about how to understand that the murder of George Floyd is part of a long history of shattered racial bodiesAnd that we can have the sustenance that we can use that history to propel us forward.
You kicked off this conversation by telling me that when your father leads you south, he didn’t stop at Confederate memorials or museums. But he showed you the Smithsonian and said this is where you can learn and explore, and you’ll be treated fairly. Your dad has been gone for a while now. He knew you were working to create this museum, but he didn’t see the final thing. What do you think your father will say?
When we opened the museum that day in September, I was nervous. aghast! I thought ‘My God, I got President Obama, President Bush and John Lewis talking. who am I?’
When it was my turn to speak, I remember my legs were only jelly. I was scared to death. As I turned to the stage, I heard people calling out my name, Lonnie Bunch.
Now, I’m Lonnie Bunch the the third. Suddenly I thought of my grandfather, Lonnie Bunch, who started his life as a skilled farmer and changed the path of my family. I thought of my dad, Lonnie Bunch Jr., who couldn’t be the chemist he wanted to be, and I turned out to be an amazing teacher for 35 years. And suddenly I realized that what they were doing by calling this name was not honoring me. They honored my grandfather and father. And they’d all help us remember that we’re celebrating those famous people, maybe just their families.
For me, what I wish is for my grandfather and father to laugh first and say, What, are you kidding me? This is the kid who was very shy, didn’t want to speak in front of people? But I hope they think what I did was make sure they remembered them and all of our ancestors, and that we made the African American story central as the quintessential American story.
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