The founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture talks about what comes next for a museum drawing historic crowds to Washington, D.C.
When the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened its doors in September, it fulfilled a promise made more than a century ago, in 1915, when black veterans gathered to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. They pledged then to build a museum to black history and culture. Lonnie Bunch, the museum’s founding director, made their dream a reality.
Bunch also fulfilled a different promise, one he made to the country, or at least to reporters—or maybe just to himself. Over the course of the museum’s long construction, Bunch insisted that it would open before the nation’s first black president left the White House. The ribbon-cutting ceremony presided over by President Barack Obama this fall was one of the high points of the year and an essential moment in the history of the Smithsonian Institution.
People get it. The wait for advance tickets to see the museum extends through spring 2017; tickets for May won’t be released until February. The last museum to be built on the National Mall adds knowledge and joy to America’s cultural treasury. At just three months old, the National Museum of African American History and Culture is still working out the kinks, yet it already serves as an essential repository for truth in the nation’s capital. Here, Bunch puts the museum’s historic opening and ever-changing context into perspective.
It’s been several months, but the congratulations are still pouring in on the museum’s opening. Just this week, The New York Times called the opening the “museum event of the year—probably the century.” How do you judge your opening?
I’m humbled by the response. You know, you work for more than a decade, hoping to create something that’s meaningful. To see the thousands, tens of thousands of people, reacting, sharing their stories, being made better by this history—it’s one of the most humbling and moving things to ever happen to me in my life.
I wanted to ask you about something else that popped up in Wesley Morris’s story. The museum doesn’t have an easy name. It doesn’t have an easy acronym—NMAAHC. But “Blacksonian” has become a popular shorthand, especially on Twitter. Morris, in The New York Times, refers to it as the Blacksonian. What do you think of that?
That’s not my favorite thing. I think that, while the name is long and unwieldy, the African American museum of the Smithsonian is a powerful enough name.
This museum, which I’ve had the pleasure to visit a couple of times now, offers such a very different, realer version of American history. A lot of your audience may only be familiar with a more sanitized history. They may even be expecting to see that sanitized history in the museum. Do viewers understand what they’re seeing? Do they accept it?
My understanding, based on all the people I talk to who walk through, people really value the fact that this is the unvarnished truth. It’s not a Holocaust museum. It’s not a museum of horrible moments. But it’s a museum that tells an accurate history that has moments of sorrow and moments of triumph and resiliency. I think the public responds well to that.
The traffic for the museum has been sensational. It’s still packed and promises to be that way for a very long time. Was the museum built in a way to accommodate those crowds and still give viewers the experience they’re there to see?
One of the challenges of the Smithsonian, and every Smithsonian museum, is: How do you craft a museum for the huge audiences that come? Especially that come the week between Christmas and New Year’s or the first week of April. What we’ve done is given people an opportunity by having open galleries on different floors to spread out the crowds. We’ll always be crowded, but that’s a good problem to have.
Since the museum opened in September, circumstances have changed in this country. Circumstances have changed here in Washington, D.C. You have white supremacists hosting pride events here in this city. Does that change the counterpoint that the museum offers? Does the election affect the programming the museum has planned?
The museum always felt that its job was to be a space where Americans can debate issues, come together, and maybe find common ground. The last several months just reminds us of the importance of history and the importance of contextualization. We want to provide that and give them a tool to help [visitors] live their lives in this period of change and transition.
What has changed at the museum since it opened? What have you looked at and thought, “Maybe this isn’t working. Maybe we can do this a better way”?
To be honest, I wish we had another building. I think that it’s worked very well, the notion of people looking at a history, often an unfiltered history, then looking at culture writ large. There’s nothing dramatic I would change.
Reconstruction is I think one of the most challenging aspects of American history, because it’s a time when terrorism won in this country. Terrorism defeated the goals that we needed to reach as a nation. How do you approach that subject matter through a museum presentation?
Part of the notion has always been for those of us who are historians has been to recognize that terrorism is not new to African Americans. The way that the Redeemers, the people who wanted to take back the South, brutalized and murdered African Americans—for us, that means how to tell a story of missed opportunity. That’s what Reconstruction was. Here was a period of profound change where America had a chance to, if not integrate, bring together 4 million newly freed people—to craft an America that would live up to its stated ideals. In essence, the South lost the war but won the peace.
As a historian, how do you evaluate the era we are living through now? Do you agree that the election of Donald Trump was a direct response to the presidency of Barack Obama?
I think that you can draw parallels with Reconstruction. Clearly, we’ve gone from a period where people hoped that we were in a post-racial world—which, obviously, we could never be—to a period where there are great schisms in America, often around issues of race. What we hope is that we learn from history and realize that we don’t want to erase the gains. We want to remember that America is at its best when it’s struggling to live up to its stated ideals.
The museum is actively growing and acquiring. It has developed profound relationships with many, many donors, from corporations to individuals to private collectors. Does that make it more difficult for other, smaller African American history and culture museums to continue operating?
In fact, I would argue that it’s the exact opposite. What this museum has done is help to propel a national conversation around race, around history, and around preserving America’s cultural patrimony. What I think is happening is that museums, whether they be in Philadelphia or Chicago or Detroit, are reaping the benefit. All the museum directors who call me talk about how they can now grapple with bigger issues and that there’s great interest in their communities around the subject because of the excitement that’s come from the national museum.
The other thing that has really made this work is that we at the Smithsonian realize that there is no way that we could tell these stories or do this work without recognizing that we are standing on the shoulders of all these other African American museums.
What are some of the things that the museum is collecting or acquiring right now?
We are looking to build our collections on Reconstruction. We think that is such an important subject that we don’t have strong collections on. We’re also looking to try to make sure that we continue to develop the collections on urbanization, on the migration of blacks from the south to the north.
Can you give me an example of something that I maybe haven’t seen inside the museum of an object or artifact from Reconstruction?
One of the things you want is a military uniform worn by a black soldier during Reconstruction. African Americans were crucial in enforcing order during Reconstruction. The other things you want are some of the kind of old documents from the Freedman’s Bureau. A contract between the formerly enslaved and his or her master. These really began to lay out a different kind of relationship.
Okay, about soldiers who were tasked with enforcing order during Reconstruction: Do you have a sense of what that was like, psychologically, for those soldiers?
In some ways, for a lot of the soldiers, this was a chance to ensure that what they were fighting for would actually come to fruition. The notion of ending slavery and creating a society where African Americans have certain rights. So there was a sense of both pride that you were fighting for a country, and pride that you were also opening a door for your own community.
Now that you’re on the other side of the opening, what is something you would have done differently before you opened the doors?
I would have probably had a lot more dry runs working with unbelievably large crowds. We expected 3,000 to 4,000 people a day. We get 6,000 to 8,000 people a day. Even though we put plans in place, I’m not sure you can intellectualize what this experience would be. The best example is: At the Smithsonian, most people spend an hour-and-a-half in a museum. We figured people would spend 3 hours at our museum. That’s the way I began to look at the numbers. The challenge is that people spend five or six hours. We couldn’t plan for that. Making sure the visitor experience is as good as it can be—[that’s] what I will continue to work on for the next several months.
Five and six hours at a museum is unheard of.
It scares me.
What it really speaks to is two things. One is a thirst in America to understand this story. Not just the big moments—the Civil Rights movement and the Civil War—but to understand: What was it like to migrate from North Carolina to Newark, New Jersey? What was it like to create your own business in a segregated America? What I realize is that people have a thirst for this.
I can’t go anywhere. This morning, I took the train to Philadelphia to look at some exhibits. A woman stopped me and just said, “Thank you.” That happens over, and over, and over again. That to me means there was a great thirst to understand America through an African American lens.
What are you looking at in Philadelphia?
I’m looking at three exhibitions. I went to the Philadelphia Museum of Art to look at the Mexican Modernism show. I’m now at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. I just looked at their exhibition on the impact of art on World War I. I’m about to go look at some photo exhibitions. It’s a busman’s holiday. Every director wants to make sure that nobody gets in front of them and that they know all the new ideas that are going up.
What’s the feedback you’re getting from your peers—historians, museum directors, people who are familiar with what you’re doing at a very high level?
Overwhelmingly positive. The best way to tell that is every day I get a call from someone saying, “Can you get me into the museum?” I’ve gotten calls from colleagues at universities, whether it’s Yale or Stanford or Howard, all saying how proud they are of the museum and how it’s really helped to make history valuable again for the American public. What means most is people coming up and saying, “Thank you.” But to have your peers recognize how hard it was to struggle for 11 years to actually get a museum open. . . . As you know about historians, one of the things we’re very good at is always being critical. Every historian I know says, “You could have done X, but I like what you’ve done all across the board.” That to me is as high a claim as you can get.
It’s not every day that a museum opens on the National Mall. Does this museum opening and the success we’ve seen with it—the public acclaim—accelerate the possibility of building a Latino American or Asian American museum?
I don’t know the politics. All I know is, if museums realize that, even if they are ethnically specific, that their goal is to tell a quintessentially American story through that lens—I think there’s great need for that to happen.
You opened the museum in 2016. How do you follow that up in 2017?
That’s a good question. I think what you want to do is operationalize the museum. Make sure that its presentations and programs really reach out nationally. Make sure that you’re doing public programs around both historical issues and contemporary issues. I’m beginning to work with the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund to look at what kind of programs we should do to help people grapple with this question of the tension between the police and the African American communities, and look at how this museum is really of value going forward—both by looking back but also by wrestling with contemporary concerns.