WASHINGTON - On June 16, 2019, Lonnie G. Bunch III became the 14th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

In an induction ceremony at the museum’s historic Arts and Industries Building in November of that year, Bunch shared a story about a 1960s road trip with his father during a racially tumultuous time in the country.

“He pulled in front of the Smithsonian, and then he said to me, ‘You could visit the Smithsonian and not worry about being turned away by the color of your skin,’” Bunch recalled. “I have never forgotten that moment, which told me that the Smithsonian was a special place.” 

As the secretary, Bunch oversees 19 museums, 21 libraries, the National Zoo, numerous research centers, and several education units and centers.

A north-facing view of the Enid A. Haupt Garden and the south facade of the Smithsonian Institution Building ('The Castle') in Washington, D.C. (Dane A. Penland/Smithsonian)

Bunch is the first African American and the first historian to hold the Smithsonian’s highest office.

“I think in some ways it's unbelievably humbling,” he said in an interview with VOA via Skype. “I think of my grandfather and grandmother; they started out as sharecroppers, and she used to take in other people's laundry and scrub other people's floors, so her children and grandchildren wouldn't have to.”

“Well, because they changed the trajectory, I am where I am. And so, I want to make sure that what I can do is help change other people's trajectories,” he added.

Bunch has worked at the Smithsonian for four decades, starting in 1978 as an education specialist and historian at the National Air and Space Museum, then as curator at the National Museum of American History and as the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which has welcomed more than 6 million visitors since it opened in September 2016.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture opened on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., in September 2016. (Michael Barnes/Smithsonian)

The museum is devoted exclusively to exploring, documenting and showcasing the African American story and its impact on American and world history. It’s home to a collection of about 40,000 objects that are housed in the first “green building” on the National Mall.

One particular object on display there has special meaning for Bunch.

“The one that resonates with me, that makes me cry every day, is Emmett Till’s casket,” Bunch said, “mainly because I became close to his mother as I was getting ready to leave Chicago.”

Crimes against humanity

Emmett Louis Till was a black teenager who was kidnapped, tortured and killed by white men in Mississippi in the summer of 1955 after he was accused of whistling at a white woman.

FILE - Emmett Louis Till, the murdered Chicago teenager whose body was found in the Tallahatchie River, Mississippi, in 1955.

Bunch recalls the strength of Till’s mother.

“What I realized is that the casket was really not a way to talk about Emmett Till's broken body, but it was a way to talk about the strength of women. Here is a black woman at the worst moment of her life, said, ‘I will use that to challenge America to reinvigorate or reignite the civil rights movement.’”

Till’s cousin Simeon Wright, who was with him the night he was kidnapped, beaten and lynched, said in a 2009 interview with Smithsonian Magazine that the casket “held the object of a mother's unconditional love. And then I see a love that was interrupted and shattered by racial hatred without a cause.”

“Donating it to the Smithsonian was beyond our wildest dreams,” Wright told the magazine. “People are going to come from all over the world. And they're going to view this casket, and they're going to ask questions. ‘What's the purpose of it?’ And then their mothers or fathers or a curator, whoever is leading them through the museum, they'll begin to explain to them the story, what happened to Emmett."

Racial upheaval

Since becoming secretary, Bunch has had to grapple with the challenges of racial tension and political divide in the nation.

“In many ways, we're comfortable as Americans that we're shaped by our genetic DNA, but we forget we're shaped by our historic DNA as well,” Bunch said. “So, I wanted people to understand how issues of race go back hundreds of years, and how if we don't understand that history, we can't address them and make the changes we need.”

Lonnie G. Bunch III is the 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. (Michael Barnes/Smithsonian Institution Archives)

He cites the example of the social unrest in the country following the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, the Black Lives Movement and the deadly riots at the U.S. Capitol on January 6 of this year.

He was motivated by those turbulent events he said, to help organize a group of “rapid response people” to go out onto the streets to gather banners and buttons and other tangible evidence and collect some of the broken furniture from within the Capitol. “So, basically saying, as a historian, 'This is going to be a crucially important moment.'

“And I guess if you said to me, ‘Why do we do this?’ We do it in part because we want people to remember; we do it in part because we want people to say the Smithsonian helps us identify what's important to know.”

Pandemic

Another challenge for Brunch has been the pandemic, which has forced the museums to close and focus more on their online presence.

“We knew at the Smithsonian that we needed to be more digital,” he said. “If you have 39-40 million people come to your door every year, you're like, ‘Wow, that's pretty good.’ But that's a small percentage of what could come to you digitally.

“Even before the pandemic, my goal was that the Smithsonian should be seen as a place that matters; a place that gives the public — both American and international — tools to grapple with the things that are important,” he said. Not just what it wants to remember he points out, “but what it needs to remember.”

“You can go to the American history museum or the Native American Museum, you can go through the American Art Museum,” he said. “The strength of the Smithsonian is that you can go to different portals to understand what it means to be an American.”

It's been a moment, he said, that’s allowed him to start reimagining the Smithsonian.

“Reimagining our educational output, reimagining how we serve the public … because my goal was not to simply get through the moment, but to use the moment to propel us forward,” he said.

To look forward, while still remembering the past.

Enduring vision

And after working for six secretaries, continuing that vision as a leader of the Smithsonian Institution himself.

“The vision is really doing what we've done well for 175 years,” he said. “To be a place that's a reservoir for America to dip into, to understand itself, to understand our environment.”

“And I want it to be a place that allows you to find fun, find joy, find understanding. Find truths, even if they're hard truths. And in essence be a place that you one day look back on and say, ‘I learned a lot at the Smithsonian, and the Smithsonian gave me what I needed to grapple with the world I live in today,’” he said.