WASHINGTON — Lonnie Bunch III, the founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and the former Chicago Historical Society president, was elected Tuesday to be the 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian.
Bunch is the first African American, and first historian, to be elevated to the top spot of the sprawling Smithsonian museums and related enterprises.
The Smithsonian Institution’s Board of Regents said in a release that Bunch’s appointment is effective June 16.
Bunch was president of the Chicago Historical Society from 2001 to 2005 and living in Oak Park when he was recruited to build the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
He started the museum from scratch – from wrangling the site on the National Mall to the staff, design and construction of the building, to creating the collections and the programs.
In a 2016 interview, I asked Bunch about his decision to leave the Chicago Historical Society and the challenges of launching a new museum.
I wrote then: “At first Bunch was hesitant to leave Chicago, but ‘I realized that building this museum and getting it right could nurture the souls of our ancestors. That became too powerful for me to overcome.’
“A historian by training, dealing with former Mayor Richard M. Daley, former Gov. George Ryan, the leaders of the Illinois General Assembly and Chicago’s corporate leaders taught Bunch ‘the power of a marriage that includes the corporate community, the political community and the cultural community.’ ”
The 400,000-square foot, $540 million boxy building, covered with distinctive filigree and covering five acres on the National Mall near the Washington Monument, was dedicated in September 2016. That fulfilled Bunch’s goal of getting the museum open while former President Barack Obama, the nation’s first African American president, was still in office.
“I am humbled and honored to become the 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution,” Bunch said in a release.
“I am excited to work with the Board of Regents and my colleagues throughout the Institution to build upon its legacy and to ensure that the Smithsonian will be even more relevant and more meaningful and reach more people in the future.”
When Bunch left Chicago, his new job at the Smithsonian was a homecoming of sorts. Earlier, between 1989 and 2000, he worked at the National Museum of American History and at the National Air and Space Museum from 1978 to 1979.
Combined, the 19 Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo makes up, according to the Smithsonian, “the world’s largest museum.”
Bunch received his master’s and bachelor’s degrees from American University in Washington, specializing in African American and American history.
Former President George W. Bush signed the legislation establishing the African American museum in 2003, and it took Bunch 13 years to raise the money, design, build and collect the objects that show the difficult, horrible and uplifting sagas of African Americans in the United States.
The museum’s opening came in the final months of Obama’s presidency. Intractable race-related problems — in Charlotte, N.C., and Tulsa, Okla. — festered as Obama was preparing to leave office. Major urban crime issues were unresolved.
“This museum,” Obama said then, “provides context for the debates of our times.”