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Bunch Crunch: How Will Smithsonian Institution’s Secretary-Elect Navigate DC’s Political Minefields?

The elephants-not-in-the-room at this morning’s press conference celebrating the appointment of Lonnie Bunch III as the Smithsonian Institution’s new secretary (effective June 16) were the man currently occupying the Oval Office and conservative members of Congress—politicians not known to be sympathetic towards federal cultural support in general and politically sensitive exhibitions in particular.

Although the questioners at today’s press conference didn’t probe how Bunch might handle the political controversies that come with the job of being a top federal cultural official, directly under the eyes of Congress, more can be learned from Jason Grumet‘s revelatory interview with him—Public History and Leadership—which aired Feb. 22 on C-Span3. The conversation occurred in February, when Bunch, then director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), may well have known that he was in the running for the Smithsonian’s top spot—one of over 800 potential candidates reviewed with the help of Heidrick & Struggles’ executive search firm.

Screenshot from C-Span3 program featuring Lonnie Bunch (right) with interviewer Jason Grumet, founder and president, Bipartisan Policy Center

Describing himself as “an American historian who happens to be black,” Bunch used the NMAAHC as a model for how to grapple with issues raised by leading a federally funded “identity” museum:

The most important thing we did was to say, “This is a story about America’s identity, through an African-American lens.” I had seen a lot of wonderfully important ethnic museums that were really about their community first and foremost. I thought that the story of black America was too important to put just in the hands of one community. It really was the story that profoundly shaped the nation—our notion of resilience, optimism, spirituality.

So sat down at the very beginning and said to staff: “Every exhibition we do, I want to see a line where you tell me, ‘Here’s where this illuminates the African American experience, and here’s where it illuminates the American experience,’ so that we can make sure that no one can say, ‘This was a story by black people for black people’”….

When I was the associate director in charge of all the curators at the National Museum of American History, I was called before Congress and one member of Congress asked me: “Can somebody African American be in charge of America’s history?”

I was so offended by that notion—that I could only know one aspect of it—that I realized that what I wanted to do was make sure that I understood the fullness of the American experience, and that I could bring that to bear.

When another questioner asked Bunch how he would “define the particular leader who’s in charge of our country right now and how that’s affecting the African American community,” he deftly ducked:

This museum is a place where everybody learns. And we’ve had President Trump, we’ve had a variety of people come through the museum, and we hope that they begin to grapple with these questions that we raise. My goal is to educate everybody. [Big pause, then a grin.]

I’m also a Washington diplomat. [General laughter from the audience.]

Diffusing tension with charm and humor is just one of Bunch’s many impressive gifts (which also include proven skills as a consummate fundraiser). That said, he’s also a realist. Here’s what he said when Grumet asked him, “What’s your imagination of the future of race in America?”:

I am very hopeful [but] worried—worried in the short term about the kind of hatred that I see bubbling up today, the kinds of death threats [?!?] that sometimes we get in the museum. But ultimately I believe strongly in the greater good—that folks will come together and make America better [emphasis added].

But race will always be a divisive factor in America and we’ll never get to the post-racial world that many people thought we would. That’s just not going to happen.

What is going to happen is an opportunity for the Smithsonian’s first African American secretary to foster mutual understanding and respect that may help people to (in his words) “come together and make America better.”

That strikes me as a wiser, more holistic goal than “Make America Great Again.”

Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has already tweeted her good wishes to the incoming secretary:

@realDonaldTrump, at this writing, has not yet been heard from.

I’ll give the last word on Bunch to Stephanie Stebich who, as director of the National Museum of American Art, was one of two Smithsonian museum heads on the search committee that unanimously chose the next secretary.

Stephanie Stebich

Stephanie today shot off this emailed appraisal to me:

We selected a true visionary. Enthusiastic and unanimous vote in his favor. He was head and shoulders the best candidate. Right person for this moment in time!
A great day for the Smithsonian.

UPDATE: Read more on how Bunch will engage with hot-button issues in Smithsonian Magazine, here: “You’re going to get beat up anyway. So you might as well do the work that’s important but also make sure that you build the alliances to protect you.”

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