It was more than a notion: Create America’s first national museum honoring the African American experience with all its hills and valleys, said the man who’d been charged with that task.
But he did it, slowly and surely, weathering setbacks and celebrating every victory on the road to the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on Sept. 24, 2016, its former founding director, Lonnie Bunch III, said here Thursday.
Bunch was in town to launch a three-month national tour for his new book, “A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Age of Bush, Obama, and Trump.”
The venue? The Chicago History Museum that Bunch headed from 2000-2005. He was president there, living in Oak Park, when he signed on to create NMAAHC from scratch.
The interviewer? Linda Johnson Rice, former heir and owner of the now-defunct Johnson Publishing Co., which recently auctioned off remains of the iconic firm to a philanthropic group pledging to donate its photo collection to the museum profiled in Bunch’s new book.
“I think that Johnson Publishing Company was one of the most innovative things that ever was. It was the journal of record for black America since World War II,” said Bunch in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times on Thursday. “I think sometimes we think things will never change, and then we realize that everything does.
“And so I was sad to see it go but very honored that the Smithsonian could play a part in making sure their images and stories will be preserved and made available for future generations.”
When still publishing Ebony and Jet magazines, Johnson Rice became co-chair of NMAAHC’s Museum Council, working with Bunch for years to bring the museum to life.
“Linda has always been the best cheerleader you could ever have,” Bunch told the Sun-Times. “Whenever I would call her during that journey and say, ‘I’m not sure about A or B,’ she may not have had the answer, but she was always that ear that would say, ‘OK, we’ll get through this. We’ll figure it out.’ I like her so much.”
Bunch, who this year became the first African American to helm the world-renowned Smithsonian, overseeing 19 of the world’s top museums, will visit seven cities in the next three months discussing his book, holding events marked by “In Conversations” with high profile journalists and historians — from Oprah bestie Gayle King to noted historian Henry Louis Gates.
“A Fool’s Errand” chronicles the strategies, support systems and coalitions Bunch had to put in place to build the National Mall’s African American history museum — one that attracted more than 4 million visitors in its first two years. Bunch’s book will hit stands Sept. 24, NMAAHC’s third anniversary, when a public event will be held at the Washington, D.C., museum.
The book covers his journey from being tasked with leading a team that would lay the foundation for a 400,000-square foot, $540 million institution, through the decade of work leading up to its opening — winning the site on the National Mall, choosing architectural design and builders, raising more than $400 million, then curating nearly 40,000 objects.
It is a story of Bunch’s personal struggles during the high-profile undertaking but also a roadmap for others on how to succeed in the face of major political and financial challenges. Then-President George W. Bush signed the legislation creating the museum on Dec. 16, 2003, and then-President Barack Obama spoke at its groundbreaking on Feb. 22, 2012.
Bunch said he and Obama would talk periodically about the Obama Presidential Center, which is set to be built in Jackson Park on Chicago’s South Side.
“What’s important to me is that, unlike earlier presidential libraries, this one is less about him and more about the issues and creating future generations of leaders,” Bunch said.
Bunch talked Thursday of his challenges curating the NMAAHC, organizing road shows to cull from ordinary citizens’ attics and trunks. Bunch’s tour to find and save those African American treasures had kicked off in Chicago in 2008.
Hundreds of people brought their possessions in for evaluation, akin to NMAAHC’s current Community Curation Project through the month of September in Chicago, where residents are able to get decaying family photos, treasured wedding/birthday videos and historical memorabilia digitized.
The project, Bunch said, is “an evolution of the notion that part of what you have to do is figure out how do you give a gift to America.
“Part of that gift initially was helping them preserve grandma’s old shawl or 19th century photo. And now it’s helping them preserve their memories, documents, photos, etc.
“So this is really part of a process that says everybody’s got history and that history is crucially important,” Bunch said.
Chicago artifacts and photos are in the NMAAHC’s vast collections — from a Pullman porter cap to the casket of Emmett Till, lynched in Mississippi in 1955, Ebony and Jet magazine covers, and furniture from the set of Oprah’s one-time Chicago-based show. Oprah became NMAAHC’s biggest donor, at $21 million.
The museum’s success offers a poignant message, Bunch said.
“The biggest message is that you can take a story that some people think is a narrow story, for one community, and make that story universal.”