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Jeffrey Brown speaks with Lonnie Bunch, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, about plans for a new museum on the National Mall in Washington.
After nearly a century of discussion, debate and delay, a National Museum of African-American History and Culture is closer to reality and to a very prominent place on the National Mall in Washington D.C.
The Smithsonian Institution recently selected a site near the Washington Monument, allowing the museum staff to move forward with fund-raising, commissioning an architect and much more.
Overseeing that effort is the museum's founding director, Lonnie Bunch, a former curator at the Smithsonian and president of the Chicago Historical Society. And he joins me now.
Welcome to you.
I read that you were hired in part to quote: identify the museum's mission. Have you figured it out?
You know, in a simple way we have. One of the challenges of this museum is simply to help Americans to remember, to remember African-American culture, and to place African-American culture as something that's central to us all. So that everybody, regardless of race will understand that African-American culture has shaped who we are and continues to shape who we will be.
It's a history with great accomplishment but of course great pain. I would imagine you have many constituents, historians, the public, politicians; how do you put it all together and satisfy everybody and tell a coherent story?
I would love to say it's easy to satisfy everybody. But I think the truth is what we do is we use scholarship as the core. So we're fortunate over the last thirty or forty years, there has been wonderful creative thinking about the history of African-Americans. And so we will use that as the cornerstone of what we do. But the goal is really to find that tension between telling stories that are moments of great evil and of great tragedy and moments of resiliency and optimism.
Where will the collection come from?
Well, the Smithsonian itself has some holdings that we will use. But that our job is really to find the collections. So we're going to create a national collecting initiative to kind of save our African-American treasures that is going to allow us to work with regional museums, go into people's homes and identify material, some which will stay in their homes, some which will go to local museums, and maybe a small percentage which will come to the Smithsonian to help us build a collection.
And who is this for? Who are you trying to reach?
Well, this is a museum that is really geared for the American public, like the rest of the Smithsonian. But our goal is also to think about what's the museum of the 21st century, how do we engage children, teenagers; how do we serve an international audience? Ultimately, how do we take this story of African-American culture and make it into a lens in to what it means to be an American for all of us?
And how do you do that? Particularly, you mentioned young people. We always hear about how little they know about history. How do you reach them?
Well, I think you do several things. You recognize that there is an important use of technology, not that technology will dominate what you do, but it is an important part of this. But then you've got to think about programs that work.
One of the things that I did in Chicago was create a program called Teen Chicago, which got teenagers engaged with history by interviewing people about what it was like to be a teenager. And I think we have to think of those kind of innovative programs that allow people to find ownership in history.
So that basically rather than say you have to wait until you 40 to care about history, we want you to be younger and care about it.
Now this is a very prime bit of real estate you have just been given. Congressman John Lewis referred to it as the nation's front yard. Explain the importance of being on the National Mall.
Well, I think what the National Mall is, it's really the most important space in America to help the average citizen learn about American culture, American life. And so therefore, I think it's really important that this museum, that this culture, that this story be on the mall because it is an important part of who we are. But also quite candidly, what the mall gives you is an opportunity to make a story accessible, to the millions of people who will visit the Smithsonian as a whole. And in some ways, there's nothing more fitting than this story, being made accessible to the millions who will walk up and down the mall so they will understand the centrality of the African-American story.
Now you know as I know from some past stories that this is disputed territory to put more on the mall, not because of the museum itself, but because some people worry that it's just become too crowded. So you are going — you still have a fight on your hands, right?
Well, I think that this with a decision that Congress asked the Smithsonian board of regents to make and they've done that. I think that we are really looking forward to working with a variety of people, those who are in favor of the museum, those who are worried about the mall, to make sure that whatever we put there will satisfy us all. So I like the fact that this process is going to allow us to reap the benefits from interaction with a lot of different segments of the population.
Now there has been a spurt of institutions and museums around the country, I've noticed, in the last few years, looking at black history. I saw it myself last year in Cincinnati with the new Underground Railroad Museum. Why do you think this is happening?
Well, I think several things. I think first of all, there is a realization that the civil rights generation is passing — the death of Mrs. King, for example. And there are a lot of people who are realizing that those stories are so important that they want to capture them.
But also I think two things are happening: There is also a very large black middle class that is now able to support these kinds of institutions, and want to make sure their children and other children learn those stories. But also, there's 30 years of scholarship. So now you can tell those stories, you can make sense of slavery or Jim Crow and the civil rights movement.
What about for you personally, you told one reporter, I'm from a family that isn't too far removed from the rural South. How personal is this telling and preserving of that history?
This is very personal to me because this is really a story that I am doing in some way to honor my ancestors — that I think sometimes when we're working and struggling, I think of my slave great grandparents, and think that they must be smiling as they see this story of remembering, being told on the National Mall. So for me, this is really about my way of giving back to a community that has supported me my whole career.
Now this is going to end up costing around $400 million, some from Congress, some you have to raise, so you have got a big task still ahead of you.
I think that he is a major part of the challenge. But I'm optimistic because there is a significant amount of people around this country who have expressed such interest and such appreciation when we announce that the museum was going to be on the mall, but also, we are fortunate to have a wonderful array of people like Oprah Winfrey, Bob Johnson, Dick Parsons, Ken Chinault, some of the sort of preeminent people in this country who have said they want to make sure this happens. So I am confident that this is a story that corporate America will care about. This is a story that foundations will want to support. And this is a story that individuals will want to see made accessible for all of America's children.
And an opening, I've seen 2015, 2016, what are you predicting?
Let's just say I want to do this in less than a decade.
All right. Lonnie Bunch, director of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, thanks a lot.
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