As the National Museum of African American History and Culture Turns One, Director Lonnie Bunch Looks Back

NMAAHC Reflection Pool (Photo by anokarina)

by Rachel Sadon via

Since Ruth Odom Bonner joined President Barack Obama in ringing the bell to open the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture last year, more than 2.5 million people have visited the site.”What’s been so moving is that it’s clear after a year, the museum has already become a pilgrimage site,” says Director Lonnie Bunch, who began the “great adventure” of opening the museum in 2005. What followed was more than a decade of building a collection and a building from scratch. It culminated on September 24, 2016 when the daughter of a slave and the nation’s first black president tolled the 500-pound bell that had been lent by the historically black First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, Va. and ushered people in.

Visitors to the African American History and Culture Museum tend to stay more than triple the typical amount of time they spend at most museums. Even a year later, a pass system remains in place to prevent overcrowding, and the free tickets remain difficult to come by (they are released monthly, and a limited number of same-day tickets are available online starting at 6:30 a.m.). The cafe serves up over 1,500 meals a day. Bunch attributes the success in part to a pent up demand—generations worked to get the museum built, and the long-held dream was only fulfilled after more than a century of effort. But he also believes that the way the museum presents its subject matter has a lot to do with it.”It tells the unvarnished truth,” Bunch says. “I think there are people who were stunned that a federal institution could tell the story with complexity, with truth, with tragedy, and sometimes resilience. So I think the kind of honesty of it appeals to people.”

Museum officials know that even many Washingtonians still haven’t managed to get through its doors. So as they celebrate the year anniversary, much of the programming and performances they’ve planned are taking place outdoors. Music and tours of the grounds will take place on both Saturday and Sunday, and the museum’s hours have been extended for those who have passes to go inside.Ahead of the celebration, we spoke with Bunch about what it’s been like to shepherd the museum through its first year. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Lonnie G. Bunch accepts The President’s Award onstage at the 48th NAACP Image Awards on February 11, 2017. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images )

Congratulations! You’ve made it to a year.

Thank you. That’s the easy part. The hard part was getting it open.

You worked on this for more than a decade before it opened. What was it like to finally see it open after all that work, gathering all those artifacts, building this up from the ground (really a giant hole in the ground) up?

In many ways, it was probably one of the most emotional moments of my life, both professional and personal. To actually not only fulfill a dream of all the staff, but a dream of generations who wanted this, it was really very humbling. But quite honestly it was also very motivating. Whenever you hit a bump or you worry about how you’re going to pull it off, recognizing that I didn’t want to let down all these other generations who had tried, that was a great motivating factor.

You had this moment celebrating the opening, you had the president and all these people who had traveled to D.C., and then it was day one on the grounds. What’s been your experience like shepherding it through this first year?

It’s been wonderful in that it’s become, within the first year already, part of the American lexicon. There’s almost no one that doesn’t know about the museum, doesn’t know about how hard it is to get in, or how much they enjoyed it. But also I think that what’s been so moving is that it’s clear after a year, the museum has already become a pilgrimage site—that there are thousands of people who come to share their story with their grandchildren or to connect over an object with people who shared maybe a comparable experience in the Civil Rights movement. I think it’s really become what we wanted, which was to be a place that was as much about today and tomorrow as it is about yesterday.

You’ve had a long museum career. How has this particular museum been different from previous places you’ve worked at?

It’s different in that you had to start from scratch—you didn’t have a collection, you didn’t have a building. What it allowed us to do is say “what should a 21st century museum that explores race, what should it do?” So it helped us put the way that museums interpret race on its end. Instead of saying “this is a story about the African American community,” we’re saying “this is a story about America through the lens of the African American community.” And so that’s very different.Being able to start from scratch allowed us to think innovatively about how do you actually collect by working with communities and going into peoples homes, in their trunks and attics. In essence, because we had nothing, it forced us to be different than most museums. We have to be more creative, more nimble.

I’ve heard you say this a number of times, that this is an “American story told through an African American experience.” That story is obviously still happening; what is the museum’s role in responding to that story as it occurs, as we’re seeing things like Charlottesville happen in real time.

First of all, part of the museum’s job is to collect today for tomorrow, so that there are things—like we’ve collected Black Lives Matter artifacts, we’ve collected things in Ferguson, things in Baltimore—and some of those are on display in the museum. Some maybe won’t be in display until a curator 30, 40, or 50 years from now wants to use it. Our goal is to make sure that it never happens, like it used to happen early in my career—there were exhibits I wanted to do, stories I wanted to tell, and museums didn’t have those collections. I wanted to make sure that future curators wouldn’t have that problem. 

NMAAHC (photo by Mohamad via

In some cases, the museum has become a part of the story itself— I’m thinking of the extraordinary demand on the positive end, and the noose that was found inside the segregation exhibit at the other end. In a New York Times op-ed about that incident, you wrote: “The cowardly act of leaving a symbol of hate in the midst of a tribute to our survival conveyed that message as well as any exhibit ever could.” How do you see the museum becoming part of that story, too?  

I think that what’s clear is that as people come to the museum, they find sustenance, they find inspiration to help America live up to its stated ideals—whether that means being an activist, whether it means voting more, whether it means being optimistic in terms that change can happen in a positive way through struggle and through sacrifice. So I think that we couldn’t avoid being part of the story even if we wanted. We’ve really become both a symbol and a metaphor, so that’s very positive, powerful, and humbling.

The visitor numbers are really staggering, and people stay much longer than at most other museums. I remember advising locals to wait a few weeks or months when the crowds calmed down a little bit to pay a visit, but that really never happened. What do you attribute that extraordinary response to? 

One of the things we’ve realized when we were doing the museum was how much interest there was in many communities about this story. It’s almost as if there was this pent up demand that we sort of captured. But also I think people trust the Smithsonian. There were people who gave collections or who let us tell their story or who did interviews with me because they trusted the Smithsonian.

But what I think really helped do it was that the museum itself tells the unvarnished truth. I think there are people who were stunned that a federal institution could tell the story with complexity, with truth, with tragedy, and sometimes resilience. So I think the kind of honesty of it appeals to people, and is stimulating the visitation.

How did you grapple with telling both the tragic, violent, dismaying realities and the hopeful parts. How did you work to balance that? 

First of all, it was really explicitly letting everyone know that I wanted to find, the word I always used in building this museum, was tension. I wanted to find the right tension between moments that would make you cry and moments that would make you smile or feel proud.

As we talked about the exhibitions we should do, I said with each of those stories, we need to find the tension within all of them.

You go through the slavery stuff, it’s very true. But what you then see is the stories of people struggling despite the strictures of slavery, to try to control their families, to try to find freedom. You’ll find that tension in every exhibit we did.

And the other thing you’ll find in every exhibition was basically the theme of the museum: that African Americans have found a way to make a way out of no way. There’s a kind of inventiveness and an optimism that I think is also spread throughout America that comes from this community.

How are you feeling going into this weekend of events and celebrating this first year? ‘

I think that, for us, this is really an opportunity to thank the public, to say that you’ve given us a gift with your support, with your visitation. So now we want to give you a gift of community engagement. We want to give you a gift of music, a gift of theater, a gift of words. We really feel this is a way to bring local and national talent, whether they perform or whether they sing, but also to really be able to say that we want you to know we value your visitation and we want you to continue to be excited about this museum.

On the day you retire, what do you hope to have left behind?

I think the museum itself; that’s my legacy. I think that what you want is you really want three things to happen. You want to leave behind a staff who is engaged and who recognizes that there is always going to be a challenge of exploring American history and culture through this lens. That’s always got to be there. You also want to leave a legacy of having people be changed by the museum. You want that sense of a group of people who leave the museum saying I’m going to make America better. And then the last thing you want to leave behind is a sense of optimism that despite the struggles in front of you, look at the struggles behind you. And they’re not easy, they’re not without loss or sacrifice, and they’re not always complete, but this is a different world in part because of the struggles around questions of race.

Are there any particular exhibits or spots in the museum that you think maybe get overlooked or that you particularly love and would if you were taking a friend say, “you gotta see this?”

Well that’s like asking me to choose my favorite daughter. That’s hard. I find amazing things in every exhibition. I take people sometimes into the art gallery, and they’re amazed at the fact that they can see early work from Bannister and Duncanson and Tanner, but also see new material by Kara Walker and the like. So to me, that’s a great surprise. People don’t expect a museum that, on paper is about history, having a strong art collection, so that moves me to no end.

But also I’ll tell you the artifact that I really find so powerful. There is a Playbill from Newcastle, England in 1857 and it talks about a man named Ira Aldridge. He was a great African American actor who couldn’t get work in the states before the Civil War and went to England and Europe. And here in that playbill is the first time somebody black actually played Othello. To me that’s really powerful. It’s just a little playbill, but to me it’s one of most powerful objects in the museum partly because it adds new information and partly because it reminds us of the power of the mundane.

Is there anything else you would want visitors or prospective visitors to know about the museum?

I think the only thing I would say, I have been in and out of museums most of my career, I have never been as fortunate to work with such gifted people. It is the people here, we started with a staff of two, now we’ve got 200. That group that has sacrificed in ways that no one will every know and has really come up with something that is both tied to the traditions of the Smithsonian but also pushes those traditions in untested ways.

The museum will have extended hours until 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 23-24. Community events on Saturday will begin at 10 a.m. on the grounds with performances to include a marching band and west African dancers. From 11 a.m.-1 p.m., curators will lead tours on the grounds. On Sunday, events will begin at 11 a.m. with performers like Afro-Brazilian band Batala Washington, vocalist Rochelle Rice and hip-hop artist Christylez Bacon, and a continuation of the garden tours. On both days, there will be additional programming indoors, but visitors will still need reserved passes to enter. As part of the first anniversary celebration, the museum is also hosting a panel discussion on Sept. 26 with six of the Little Rock Nine students, but the event is currently at capacity.

To read full interview, go to: As The African American History Museum Turns One, Director Lonnie Bunch Looks Back: DCist

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