Wednesday, July 17, 2024

How Lonnie G. Bunch III Is Renovating the “Nation’s Attic”

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In September, 2016, when the Smithsonian’s crown-like National Museum of African American History and Culture (N.M.A.A.H.C.) opened its doors to the public, its founding director, Lonnie G. Bunch III, might easily have rested on his laurels—content, in his words, to know that he’d succeeded in “making the ancestors smile.” Securing Black history a permanent place on the National Mall had once seemed like “A Fool’s Errand”—the title of his memoir about the experience—an endeavor so fraught with political and racial baggage that its achievement had eluded his predecessors for over a century. He’d spent more than a decade courting donors, lobbying lawmakers, arguing with architects, and crisscrossing the country for a grassroots acquisitions campaign modelled on “Antiques Roadshow.” (The collection would come to include everything from James Brown’s cape to a segregated train car from the Jim Crow South.) It all culminated in a star-studded celebration, choreographed by Quincy Jones, in which Barack Obama rang a bell from one of the country’s oldest Black churches. The joyful mood was transient, but the museum wasn’t. Months later, when Bunch gave a tour of N.M.A.A.H.C. to a blithe and bewildered Donald Trump, the “Blacksonian” became a symbol of all the progress that reactionary grievance politics couldn’t reverse.

For most of its existence, the Smithsonian, a sprawling system of museums and research centers established by Congress in 1846, has enjoyed a staid reputation as the “nation’s attic.” It’s traditionally been led by scientists. But in 2019 its Board of Regents tapped Bunch, a nineteenth-century historian with a flair for diplomacy, to leave his beloved N.M.A.A.H.C.—now helmed by The New Yorker’s poetry editor, Kevin Young—and shepherd the entire organization through our polarized “post-truth” era. His tenure has been transformative, counting initiatives such as an ethical returns policy that restored twenty-nine looted Benin Bronzes to Nigeria—shifting the global conversation around restitution—and a more recent effort, spurred by a Washington Post investigation, to reckon with the scientific racism behind the Smithsonian’s collection of human remains. Bunch has also embarked on the construction of two new museums, the National Museum of the American Latino and the American Women’s History Museum; helped to negotiate the return of Chinese pandas to the National Zoo; and presided over an international investigation of the wrecks of slave ships.

With relevance and reinvention has come scrutiny, as the Smithsonian is buffeted by the culture war’s gathering winds. The two new museums, which Congress approved in 2020, have been threatened with cancellation by conservative lawmakers, who have framed them as divisive concessions to progressive identity politics. In December, Bunch testified before the Committee on House Administration, and Republicans grilled him on drag events, the alleged racism of an exhibition that discussed whiteness, and even his panda-retention efforts: Was a lust for cute bears leaving the Smithsonian open to malign influence from the C.C.P.? Bunch has shrewdly tacked and jibed between placating the Smithsonian’s right-wing critics and pushing the institution forward. But it remains to be seen how long he’ll be able to renovate the nation’s attic while its representatives are tearing up the house.

Last month, I met with Bunch at his temporary office overlooking the Air and Space Museum, where his Smithsonian career began, decades ago. (The iconic red-brick Smithsonian Castle, where the secretary of the institution usually works, is undergoing repairs.) We spoke about the two new museums, the challenge of retaining the Smithsonian’s autonomy, plans for the nation’s semiquincentennial, and a recent visit to a slave shipwreck in Brazil. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Congratulations on the new pandas. How did you get the Chinese to change their minds?

The key to life is not being the guy that lost the pandas. Part of this was really beyond us. It had to do with the United States-Chinese relations; there was a kind of frostiness in the air. But I think what Brandie Smith, the head of the [National] Zoo, and her colleagues did a really good job of is conveying to the White House—I conveyed to the White House, to the ambassadors—how important this would be. There was a conversation between President Biden and President Xi, and they realized that it would be a really great gesture to have pandas come back. So we’re really pleased. We expect to have the pandas by the end of the year.

I was hoping to meet you at the Smithsonian Castle. How long have you been in this building?

Two years? [A spokesperson corrects him.] It was just last summer? It seems like forever. What’s weird is that I was in this building for eight years [before the opening of N.M.A.A.H.C.] and all I wanted to do was to get to the new building. Suddenly, I’m back. I feel, like, “Did I ever accomplish anything?”

When do you think you’ll be able to move back?

Candidly, I’ll never move back. It’s probably seven or eight more years of doing the work to get it right. It’ll be nice for the next secretary.

How long is your term?

Probably as long as I want, unless they throw me out. The early secretaries stayed, like, twenty years. But my vow was “Don’t die in office.”

What motivated you to take the job? You could have stayed on at N.M.A.A.H.C. after spending more than a decade building it—or quit on a career high. Did you have to be convinced?

Absolutely. I really wasn’t looking to do anything other than enjoy the museum and then go teach. But I realized that almost thirty years of my life was in the Smithsonian. So I thought, Here’s my chance to give back. And I thought about being a secretary that actually knew the institution. The other part was simply the notion that some people thought I couldn’t do it. So I was, like, “All right, fine, I’ll show you.”

Who thought you couldn’t do it?

There were people who thought you had to be a scientist or that it was best to have somebody from the outside.

You have a nice view of the Air and Space Museum. Can you tell me about your first job at the institution?

Basically, I was finishing up graduate school and I was broke. I knew a returning student whose husband worked at the Smithsonian, and she said, “You should come down and try to work there.” And I remember telling her, “Who works at the Smithsonian? It’s where you take dates, because it’s free.” That was my notion of the Smithsonian.

I came down and this guy was the head of science. He took me to meet the secretary—I didn’t know what the secretary was—and I’m [thinking that] I’m not going to get a job because I’ve got a big Afro. I’ve got an Army officer’s jacket on. I mean, I’m just not going to do this. After a couple hours of talking, he said, “We might want to hire you,” and I said, “You’re kidding.”

In those days, the National Museum of American History was called the National Museum of History and Technology. I thought, All right, I’d like to work there. And he said, “We’ve got no job there. We got a job at Air and Space.” And I said, “I’m a nineteenth-century historian. I know nothing about air or space.” He said, “How much money are you making?” I told him. He said, “You come work at Air and Space and you’ll make five times that.”

I became an Air and Space guy, and it changed my trajectory. I went there maybe eighteen months after it opened, so there was this amazing energy of people who were thinking, How do you take something that’s difficult—science, aviation—and make it accessible? How do you make an Air and Space museum matter to all kinds of people?

I realized that museums were really this amazing opportunity to educate all ages—that if you really believed in the work you were doing, it was important to make sure you weren’t just talking to twenty-year-olds who maybe didn’t want to be in your class. Museums are this amazing canvas.

There’s rightly been so much focus on you being the first Black secretary of the Smithsonian. I’m also interested, though, in you being the first historian in the job. Why did that take so long?

Traditionally, they hired scientists—and then, occasionally, university presidents. But, as a historian, you really think about things in a different way. You think about contextualization. You think about how the work that you do, which is about yesterday, matters for today and tomorrow. For me, the question was: How do I give the Smithsonian a contemporary resonance? How do I make sure that it’s not just something people think about as like the nation’s attic, but, rather, as a place of meaning and value, a reservoir that people can dip into to find ways to live their lives?

But I also understood, candidly, how important it was for many people that I was the first African American, even while I tried to downplay that. At the start, when people would say, “You’re doing good work,” I’d say, “It was a team effort, it’s not me, et cetera.” And one day I was walking in the airport and these two elderly African American women came up to me and said, “Thank you.” And I gave my standard, “Oh, no, no, a lot of other people, et cetera,” and one of the women cut me off. She said, “You don’t have a right not to let us thank you. You’re standing on a whole lot of shoulders that didn’t get the chances you got. So let us thank you, because by thanking you, we’re thanking them.” That was a great lesson to me. Now, I just say, “Thank you.”

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