Lonnie Bunch started out working on the Smithsonian’s first Black museum, which consisted of no collection, no building, and only one employee.
But over the years, as founding director, Bunch has led the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture into a great success. The museum has long lines to get into the museum during peak vacation days and people don’t mind waiting.
More than 3.5 million have visited it to see exhibits ranging from the glass-topped casket used to bury lynching victim Emmett Till to the “Mothership” used by Parliament Funkadelic and a slave cabin from Edisto Island, South Carolina.
Construction on the $540 million museum began on five acres near the Washington Monument and it was completed in 2016. Millions of donors contributed $315 million in private funds ahead of the opening.
“This has been the job of my career, the best thing I’ve ever done,” Bunch told USA Today.
But Bunch’s success put him into the spotlight for a new position: becoming the 14th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Bunch will now be in charge of all 19 of its museums and he will be the first Black person to do it.
Our Founding Director Lonnie G. Bunch III was today named the Secretary of the @Smithsonian Institution. As Secretary, Bunch will oversee 19 museums, 21 libraries, the National Zoo, numerous research centers, and several education units and centers. Congrats to Secretary Bunch! pic.twitter.com/2ZET3X1hWo
— Smithsonian NMAAHC (@NMAAHC) May 28, 2019
Bunch will now have to hire his replacement at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. He says he will make sure that nothing will be watered down there.
The museum “should never lose the fact that it’s using African American culture as a lens to understanding what it means to be an American,” Bunch said. “That notion of reveling in your African Americanness but then celebrating your Americanness is really special. That, I don’t want it to lose.”
For the Smithsonian as a whole, Bunch told USA today that he plans to get the institution much more involved in the issues of the day.
“My whole career has been about expanding the canon, making sure that African American issues, that Latino issues, that issues of gender are at the forefront,” Bunch said. “And what I’m proudest of is that the Smithsonian will take the lead in grappling with these issues. … No matter what happens, the Smithsonian will always be that place to help us understand a diverse America.”
Twitter has erupted into congratulations for Bunch and this moment in time.
In 1862 the first @Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry barred Frederick Douglass from lecturing at the Castle auditorium saying he wouldn’t allow the opinions “of the coloured man to be given in the rooms of the Smithsonian.” Today #LonnieBunch becomes the 14th Secretary of SI.
— Christopher Wilson (@wolverinewilson) May 28, 2019