Lonnie Bunch III, 67, is secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Previously he was founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. This interview was conducted April 7.

Q: You’ve said that culture can hold people together and that the Smithsonian is glue that holds the country together. Are you hopeful that it’s able to play that role even in this divisive moment?

A: There’s no doubt that this is a partisan time. But you can’t be a historian of Black America without being hopeful. Because this is a group of people who, in many ways, believed in a country that didn’t believe in them. So for me, there is always hope. There is always resilience. That also is what inspires me to always tell the unvarnished truth. And I would argue that in a partisan time what you need more than anything else is clarity based on scholarship, understanding and trying to find reconciliation and truth.

Lonnie Bunch III is secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Photo for The Washington Post by KK Ottesen

Q: How are you thinking about ways the Smithsonian can be that glue in this time of isolation?

A: What I’ve realized is that the wonders of the Smithsonian need to get outside of the Smithsonian, so sort of really taking advantage of our digital commitment. We’ve always had a digital commitment, but it was always sort of secondary. So now everything is digital.

The second piece that’s really crucial for us to recognize is that life will never return to exactly the way it once was. So we begin to think: What’s the new normal? What does it mean for cultural institutions if people aren’t going to come back in the same numbers? What does it mean if people are now more comfortable with the digital world? What does it mean for staff who are now more comfortable teleworking? There are fundamental issues about what the new normal means. And I think you don’t try to re-create the museum digitally. It’s a very different experience. I love the social interaction that people have when they stand in front of Harriet Tubman’s hymnal or when they’re standing in front of a dinosaur trying to explain that to a 10-year-old; I want to always make sure that’s there. But we have to now think about: OK, how do you create a different kind of interaction digitally?

Q: Do you think museums ever will cease to be physical entities?

A: No. It’s interesting, when we started building the African American Museum, that was a conversation we had, right? Should this be all virtual? And we felt that at the Smithsonian, most people come for the authentic. They want to see the ruby slippers or the Hope Diamond or the Greensboro lunch counter. So we felt that our job was to find the tension between technology and traditional. We want to find the balance between releasing things and saying, Go at it, versus giving people more guidance: Here’s how to look at this; here’s how to think about that. I think this is a horrible time. But it’s also a time that encourages us to think about things differently because the country will never be exactly the same.

Q: When you left the Chicago Historical Society to create the African American Museum, you said you thought of it as a move from doing something for yourself versus for your ancestors. How then did you think about your move to head the Smithsonian system?

A: Good question. (Laughs.) Building the African American Museum was something I did for my ancestors, for my dad, for my mother, even for myself. But being able to help the whole Smithsonian was really my way to give back to the place I love the most. To the place that has shaped my career. It’s where I met my wife. So it was more about: How can I give back to the place that transformed my life and gave me not just a career, but a calling?

Q: Can you talk about a moment in your career when it felt like it was all coming together: You’re in the place you’re meant to be, doing the work you’re meant to do?

A: Well, sure. There was a point when we were building the African American Museum, still conceptualizing, when I was able to hire other curators. And suddenly it was no longer just my idea. I remember being in a meeting where we were talking about what this museum could be, what some of the stories were. There were scholars from around the country, there were staff there. And suddenly I realized that this is going to work. It was going to work because all these people bought in and were now taking this hope of mine and making it real in ways I could never have imagined. I’ve never forgotten that moment of feeling that we could pull this off. The other one is when I was part of a small group that opened the California African American Museum in Los Angeles in time for the Olympic Games. I was doing the big exhibit on the history of blacks in the Olympics. I didn’t know a lot of what I was doing; I was making it up as I went along. And I was in a meeting where I called together Olympic athletes who participated from the ’60s into the ’80s. So there I am, in front of all these amazing athletes – you know, John Carlos, Tommie Smith, all these people – and I’m trying to convince them to support this idea and that it was going to be great. They were kind of, like, “I don’t know. We’ve heard this before. Are we going to get paid for this?” And I was getting frustrated. And as I was getting frustrated, apparently my New Jersey accent kept coming out. So John Carlos, you know, of the Black Power salute, said to me, “Wait a minute. You sound like you’re from Jersey. Are you from Jersey?”

Q: Because he’s from Harlem, right?

A: That’s right. And he stood up, and he said, “This guy is from Jersey. You can trust him.” And they all came around after that. And so, for me, it was one of those moments of serendipity and luck. What if I hadn’t gotten tired? What if I didn’t have a Jersey accent? Those moments where things came together beyond my wildest dreams.

Q: What’s the most important advice you’ve gotten?

A: That the work you do shouldn’t be about you. It should be about the greater good. It should help people understand themselves better. Also, I’ll never forget, I was working on an exhibition and really wanted to understand slavery through the lens of a plantation. So I was in Georgetown, South Carolina, and (met) Princy Jenkins, this quiet man in his 90s who had been the caretaker for a long time. He began to tell me what it was like for his ancestors. He gave me advice that was so important. He said, “If you’re a historian, your job is to help people understand not just what they want to remember, but what they need to remember.”


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