- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 27, 2009

Black history has intrigued Lonnie G. Bunch III since his days growing up in Belleville, N.J. He remembers being old enough at age 12 or 13 to join the men at family barbecues while they reminisced about Jackie Robinson and Duke Ellington. “They told these stories in such a way that I really wanted to know more about them,” he says.

As the founding director of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, Mr. Bunch wants visitors to this future Smithsonian Institution venue to feel like they, too, are listening to his elders. “The challenge is not to make it so grand that the experience washes over you,” he says. “It is to bring issues like slavery and segregation down to a human scale so you feel like you are in somebody’s backyard hearing personal stories of the past.”

Appointed in 2005, the director is still planning the $500 million museum on the northern side of the Mall near the Washington Monument. This 350,000-square-foot building is scheduled to open in 2015 on a prominent five-acre parcel bounded by Constitution Avenue, Madison Drive, 14th and 15th streets Northwest.

In April, the architectural team Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup was chosen for the project from six firms short-listed in a design competition. Contract agreements between the architects and the Smithsonian are due to be finalized in October, but Mr. Bunch has wasted no time thinking about the ways in which the building design will be fine-tuned for exhibitions and staff.

“There are things that I hope won’t change like the corona and strong color,” he says, pointing to the copper-colored crown atop the architectural model. “But questions still remain over the size of the plinth, the placement of the offices. I am champing at the bit to hash out the design.”

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A larger priority for the 56-year-old director has been figuring out the museum’s mission. “Part of what a national museum has to do is to tell a quintessentially American story that appeals to everybody, not just African-Americans,” he says. “The notions of resiliency, optimism and spirituality that are so key to defining America come from the African-American experience.”

From the local perspective of Juanita Moore, who leads one of the nation’s largest black-history venues, Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History, “The national museum has to broaden the impact of the stories that we tell already. It has to show African-American history is American history.”

So far, Mr. Bunch anticipates a third of the museum will be devoted to the sweep of history, from slavery to the present day; another third to black cultural themes involving music, theater, film and sports; and the last third to life in communities across the nation.

The museum leader, who is black, admits the vision is rooted in his own experiences. “It is personal because I am inspired almost every day by history, by the people I meet who tell me their stories,” he says. “I want the visitor to understand there is not a single black experience, that my growing up in New Jersey was a different experience than my cousins growing up in North Carolina.”

One of the biggest hurdles facing Mr. Bunch is amassing an impressive collection. “To do this museum, you probably need 20,000 objects. We have about 7,000 so far,” says the director.

These artifacts include a Jim Crow-era railroad car from Tennessee, a cabin from Poolesville, Md., built by freed slaves, a trumpet owned by jazz great Louis Armstrong and a hat worn by a Pullman sleeping-car porter.

In August, the museum obtained the original glass-topped coffin of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black youth whose brutal murder in 1955 by Mississippi whites helped to fuel the civil rights movement.

“The great test of this museum is how to tell a national story that is rooted in deep tragedy and difficult stuff,” says David Blight, a Yale history professor who collaborated with Mr. Bunch on symposiums related to slavery. “Lonnie understands this because he is a good historian who knows the story of African-American history deeply. He has spent his life in the museum world grappling with questions of interpretation and design.”

Prior to his directorship, Mr. Bunch was president of the Chicago Historical Society. He worked to raise its profile by organizing exhibitions such as “Teen Chicago,” aimed at building a younger audience.

Raising his two daughters, Sarah and Katie, now in their 20s, helped him to understand the need for such outreach. He says his wife, Maria Marable-Bunch, who coordinates public programs at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, taught him the value of educational and community initiatives. “I’ve learned so much by watching her work.”

No newcomer to the Smithsonian, Mr. Bunch began his career in the late 1970s at the National Air and Space Museum, where he researched the history of black aviators. From 1989 to 2000, he rose through the ranks at the National Museum of American History. “It was a special place for me,” says the historian. “I went from being a curator to a senior administrator. I was able to do some great collecting.”

One of his coups was to acquire part of the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., where black students, after being refused service in 1960, spurred sit-ins in segregated cities to heighten awareness of racial injustice.

Mr. Bunch also helped establish a black history museum in Los Angeles. From 1983 to 1989, he was a curator at the fledgling California African-American Museum, where he organized an exhibit on black Olympic athletes.

“Lonnie’s career has led up to his current job,” says Spencer Crew, a George Mason University history professor and the former director of the National Museum of American History. “He has done lots of exhibitions and is a good administrator. He has a passion for making the new museum great.”

Mr. Bunch has already established a presence for the museum through traveling exhibits. The next show, opening in April at the Smithsonian’s American history museum, will celebrate the 75th anniversary of Harlem’s Apollo Theater.

Community meetings in cities across the country have put the director in touch with the public, their expectations for the museum and possible donations to the collection.

“One of the reasons Lonnie is so successful is that he deals so well with people,” says Mr. Blight. “He is a bright, ebullient person who can talk to Oprah and a room full of serious historians.”

Strangers, in turn, have responded to the museum director with unsolicited donations. Mr. Bunch recalls having his shoes shined in a Texas airport by an elderly black man who recognized him from a TV appearance.

“After he was finished, he told me to keep my money for the museum,” the director says. “He said to me, ‘Don’t you realize this [museum] is the only way my grandchildren will ever understand what life did to me and what I did to life?’ Those kinds of moments happen every time I travel.”

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