Re-Collecting the African American Experience: A Conversation with Lonnie Bunch

Noralee Frankel and Cliff Jacobs, November 2005

Lonnie BunchEditor's Note: On August 16, 2005, Noralee Frankel and Cliff Jacobs met with Lonnie Bunch, the recently appointed director of the Smithsonian Institution's latest addition, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, to talk about the museum in the making and his plans for developing the museum. We publish below an edited transcript of the conversation.

Noralee Frankel and Cliff Jacobs: How did the museum come about?

Lonnie Bunch: The desire to remember, to celebrate, to memorialize, the African American experience for a national audience in Washington, D.C., has been a dream of many since the beginning of the 20th century. What galvanized the initial planning was the reaction to the reunion of Union and Confederate soldiers at Gettysburg in 1913. Since African American soldiers were not included in the activities, many blacks felt that a national monument to "colored soldiers was an appropriate antidote to the historical amnesia that gripped the nation during this period. This idea was around for many years with varying levels of interest and support. Then at the end of his administration, Calvin Coolidge endorsed the notion of a monument that celebrated the contributions of America's "darker residents. But this idea died when the Great Depression ended any chance that this project would receive funding. After the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, many wanted a presence on the Mall that would celebrate his life and the contributions of black Americans. But this idea received limited support, though the work for the King memorial continues.

In the 1990s, there were several legislative attempts to create a national African American museum on the Mall. The most serious of these failed to receive bipartisan support and was killed in the mid 1990s. This museum project became a reality after so many years when Representative John Lewis—one of the most heroic and inspirational people that I have ever met—partnered with Senator Sam Brownback, former Senator Max Cleland, and former Representative J. C. Watts to ensure the passage of the legislation that was signed by President Bush in 2002. A Presidential Commission was formed to do a feasibility study on the challenges that this new museum would face: where would the museum be located, could the money be raised, what kind of collections may be available, and what might the program of this museum look like. At this moment, I am focused on the site selection. The legislation named four possible sites—two on the Mall and two in close proximity to the Mall. I will make a recommendation to the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution who will then decide the site at their meeting in January. Once the site is finalized, I will be off and running.

The time is right for this museum for the following reasons: the bipartisan support we now have will help get the kind of political backing that it needs; 40 years of accumulated scholarship on issues of race; and the availability of many trained people—scholars who have thought and written about race both in the academy and museum fields, as well as people who have worked in the fields. There is a black middle and upper class that is also part of the possibility. Suddenly you have people who can provide support. We all recognize the power, resilience, and the lure of African American culture globally. In a way the time is right because there is such an interest and desire to understand how this culture shapes us all.

NF/CJ: What is your vision for the museum?

LB: In some ways the real question is: what should a national museum do? I have heard many people say what we need to do is create the best black museum in America.

That has limited interest. It is important to create a museum that has a wonderful tension. A tension between being a place that gives the African American community a sense of legitimacy, a sense of place, a sense that their story is validated and remembered. The other side is a tension that says this has to be a museum that uses African American history and culture as a lens of what it means to be in America. As a national museum it has an obligation and opportunity both to embrace the obvious groups and to be a place that allows all Americans to find meaning as well as to allow all Americans to centralize the African American experience.

In many ways the African American experience in museums is seen as their story and not our story. Part of the goal is to eliminate the sense of being exotic and to centralize it on the contrary, and saying that if you are really interested in core American values where better than the African American experience. My vision is for the museum to be a place that has meaning for all. The museum has got to really be a truly national institution. Often museums in Washington are only national museums. This museum has to be something that a museum in Kansas City or a family in Los Angeles has to be able to say has some meaning to them. The museum will broaden its reach much more by collaboratively creating programs, traveling exhibitions, and workshops and training for graduate students. These things will be done collaboratively so that every institution benefits, whether you are a small African American institution, a large state historical society, or the Smithsonian. One of the things I would like to see is the creation of a national collection administration, similar to the "Save Our Treasures program. This would allow us to help preserve this material and let it find its way to African American institutions, regional institutions, and then to Washington. The museum will be thought of as a place that is tied to places outside of Washington in order to be successful.

NF/CJ: What role do you see historians playing within the museum?

LB: In some ways the heart of this museum is scholarship. The story of African American culture, the questions about what stories to tell, what is and who is an African American are things that I am going to need scholars to help out with. A formal scholarly advisory committee will be created to draw on the creativity and expertise of people as we begin to work on different exhibitions. If the museum is going to demonstrate that it is viable now, part of that is going to mean scholars shaping the program, and scholars willing to be giving a lecture that looks at race in this new museum. I would envision both formally and informally being able to draw guidance, sustenance, and support from my colleagues in the field. The truth of the matter is that this story is so big and the museum is so important that no one has shoulders broad enough to carry this alone. One of the reasons I came back to do this was that I knew I could count on the support of a diverse array of scholars to help me think this thing through, so that we all take ownership in it.

NF/CJ: How do you plan to connect with other African American history museums?

LB: This is the biggest concern. What's important is to recognize that there is money that is going to go to this institution and not other institutions. It would be dishonest to say that this is not the case. But, the goal is to really figure out how everybody benefits, whether it is through the collecting, through the mentorship programs, or the simple notion of visibility. For example, it would be really important to have a visitor come to Washington and see this museum as a beacon. A beacon that says, "Wow, let me see this great story. If the story is on slavery in low country South Carolina, there ought to be a way in the exhibition where the viewer can virtually go back to Charleston and look at X, Y, and Z, and thus be induced to actually go there,. so that in essence this becomes a place that brings you to Washington and also pushes you back to the local community. This kind of visibility will help those smaller institutions that rarely have marketing budgets. It is really thinking about a relationship and connection.

NF/CJ: At the Chicago Historical Society, you involved school-age children and teenagers in exhibitions. You had special programming on gay culture. How do you plan to incorporate such diversity into a national museum?

LB: Part of it is recognizing that the African American experience is a very diverse experience. There are fundamental questions about what "African American means. What does it mean today versus what it meant 50 years ago? This will provide a challenge and an opportunity to wrestle with more contemporary issues. To begin to look at what it means to be a darker-skinned Latino, or what it means to be a Dominican. It also means that there are stories within all communities that are difficult to tell. I recognize that what the museum ought to do is frame the story broadly enough so that people can find different pieces. The museum needs to tell other stories that are not on the surface. One of the things being at the Chicago Historical Society taught me was that we historians have to realize that there is another generation of children that pays no attention to the work we do. A generation that in some ways thinks history is P. Diddy's (formerly known as Puff Daddy) hit from a year ago. It is important to ask, how do we create programs that allow adolescents to come to history? What I would like to do is to create consumers and supporters of culture and history. The Teenage Chicago Project taught me that once we began a project where children and teenagers could see where they were in their lives, a project that actually connected to their lives, they began to get excited. The Teenage Chicago Project looked at the history of the city through the lens of adolescents' lives. Suddenly the kids became excited. This was not about history. It was about identity, self-definition, meaning, authority, and maturity. The kids realized that history has meaning. I want to create this museum so that teenagers especially will find meaning in history museums. All museums do a good job with little kids, but do a lousy job with the older generation. If you have to wait until someone turns 40 or 50 years old to care about history, then history is going to be threatened as a profession.

NF/CJ: Any last thoughts about your plans?

LB: I know that we are going to have to tackle many difficult subjects, of course. At a practical level, one of the things I want to do differently in this museum is create more space for changing or temporary exhibitions. Because of the richness and opportunities of African American culture there ought to be more opportunities to wrestle with different stories. If you want to do a variety of issues on gender you can explore different aspects of that. My goal is to create a museum that is more nimble and more fluid than most museums.

—Noralee Frankel is the AHA's assistant director for women, minorities, and teaching. Among her publications are Freedom's Women: Black Women and Families in Civil War Era Mississippi (Indiana Univ. Press, 1999) and Break Those Chains at Last: African Americans, 1860–1880 (Oxford Univ. Press, 1996).

—Cliff Jacobs is administrative assistant in the AHA's executive office. He provides staff support for the Teaching Division, the Committee on Minority Historians, the Committee on Women Historians, and the Committee for Graduate Students.