- - Saturday, December 7, 2019

Lonnie Bunch’s generosity of spirit shines through this rollercoaster odyssey like an LED in a theme park’s haunted house. His achievement here is all the greater feat of chiaroscuro given the contrast with a dark tenet of his informed historical thesis — that slavery is a core element of America’s history and culture in its original barbarities, legal bigotries and subtle legacies.

Founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Mr. Bunch sees its mission as helping “all Americans regardless of race understand how much the African American experience is embedded in America’s identity.… As a country we cannot fully understand ourselves without embracing the nation’s interdependency with slavery.”

“A Fool’s Errand” relates the founding of the Smithsonian’s youngest bureau. Its specious title aside, this wise and informing book involves matters of national history, autobiography, politics (in several realms) and the nature of museums. It describes the NMAAHC from its conception through construction, staffing, collections-building and opening — the building that became a landmark on the National Mall with its architectural originality and mind-bending exhibits. (I hear the cafeteria is pretty good, too.) 

In revealing this museum, Lonnie G. Bunch III vitalizes the scholarship he pursued elsewhere. “Slavery was the cornerstone of American economic growth, political discourse, culture and foreign policy” to say nothing of its resonance in music, dance, drama, literature, sports, science and more.

Slavery was the linchpin of trans-Atlantic trade with human chattel as the freight. Economic fodder for our antebellum North and South alike, slaves powered Carolina rice plantations and Mississippi cotton fields; cargo for New England’s mariners, slaves grew the raw materials for Yankee distilleries and textile mills.

Dismal as the facts may be, Mr. Bunch revels in the riches of black culture and the joys of creating this museum, a task he proudly accomplished with abundant help. Seldom has the leader of such an enterprise shared credit so generously, citing the contributions of colleagues and gifts of strangers. There is the airport bootblack who offers his $8 fee. When Mr. Bunch tries to decline it, the man says “Don’t be rude … [the museum] may be the only place where my grandchildren will learn what life did to me and what I did with my own life.”

There are gratefully thanked museum professionals, colleagues of many specialties, and the outsiders, including two of the three presidents named in the subtitle. George W. Bush signed the law creating NMAAHC and secured its place on the Mall. Barack Obama championed the museum and keynoted its opening. The third president, Donald Trump, makes the briefest appearance when he visits. In the history galleries “I tried to engage President Trump by explaining that the slave trade was the first global business and how its impact reshaped the world.” Viewing an exhibit on Dutch slavers, “he said to me, ‘You know they love me in the Netherlands.’”

This being a Washington memoir, he learns about politics, taking to heart the lesson that “managing Congress is an oxymoron.” The inclinations and actions of congressmen often defy predictability; likewise machinations of the Smithsonian colossus can challenge reason. Thus, this is something of a how-to and guide to the functional mysteries of our fair city. It is all the more interesting as Mr. Bunch has since become the Smithsonian’s secretary, its first CEO to rise from the ranks in a century, the first black and, importantly, the first historian.

First and last, he is a museum man who knows that people frequent museums in order to see real-McCoy objects, whether the Hope Diamond or a slave’s iron shackle. One of his most successful gambits in creating this museum was his way of simultaneously soliciting unique gifts, engaging supporters and raising what his mother called “more money than God can count.”

Most humane and intriguing are Mr. Bunch’s adventures and epiphanies in his quest to build the collections and understand them. In Mozambique, a village elder gives him a ceremonial bowl and asks him to spread its contents — dirt — in South Africa waters where a slave ship sank so as to bind the village’s drowned ancestors with “their homeland for the first time since 1794.”

Acquiring the shawl Queen Victoria gave Harriet Tubman, and Nat Turner’s Bible, and the lunch counter where the first sit-in occurred, he proved that America’s attics could surrender objects that illustrate the history of our most intimate minority and prove its place in America’s mosaic.

While building this museum, he nearly fell into an 80-foot abyss and learned cautionary lessons about practical things (e.g., construction) from the National Museum of the American Indian. His nod to the NMAI leads me, an old white guy, to reflect on related dark matters. Apropos, I must ask a question about our nation’s past and old actualities that affect us still: Which historical phenomenon was the more reprehensible or redeemable, (a) the importation and enslavement of blacks or (b) the internment and genocide of Indians? Perhaps these museums will tell.

• Philip Kopper has written histories of the National Museum of Natural History, Colonial Williamsburg, National Gallery of Art, and National Museum of Women in the Arts.

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By Lonnie G. Bunch III 

Smithsonian Books, $29.95, 288 pages

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