Lonnie G. Bunch III, the founding director of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, has been named the 14th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. He is the first African American to hold the position in the organization’s 173-year history.
In this position, Bush will lead the Smithsonian’s collection of 19 museums, nine research centers and the National Zoo.
“Lonnie Bunch guided, from concept to completion, the complex effort to build the premier museum celebrating African-American achievements,” said John G. Roberts, Jr., Smithsonian Chancellor and Chief Justice of the United States.
Bush, a historian with more than 35 years in the museum field, brought the National Museum of African-American History and Culture to life. When he started as director in 2005, he had one staff member, no collections, no funding and no site for a museum.
Today the museum welcomes about 4 million visitors and compiled a collection of 40,000 objects. The museum is the first “green building” on the National Mall. He rallied donors of every level and worked with Congress to fund the museum through a public-private collaboration.
In a 2000 article headlined “Flies in the Buttermilk: Museums, Diversity and the Will to Change,” published in the American Alliance of Museums magazine, Bunch wrote about the paucity of Black faces at a national meeting of museum professionals. He quoted Al Green’s 1971 hit “Tired of Being Alone”: “I’m so tired of being alone, I’m so tired of being on my own. There were just a few of us flies in the buttermilk.”
Now he’s hoping his appointment as secretary will help expand opportunities for African Americans.
People of color are 39% of the population but only 11% of museum audiences. Studies from art museums, which are about a quarter of the museum universe, show only 4% of leadership positions are held by African Americans, and those numbers are likely true throughout the museum world.
Previously, Bunch was the president of the Chicago Historical Society, one of the nation’s oldest museums of history (2001–05). There, he led a successful capital campaign to transform the Historical Society in celebration of its 150th anniversary, managed an institutional reorganization and began an unprecedented outreach initiative to diverse communities.
Bunch’s Smithsonian experience spans three museums: the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, the National Museum of American History and he began his Smithsonian career as an education specialist and historian at the National Air and Space Museum in 1978-79.
Bunch received his master’s (1976) and bachelor’s (1974) degrees from American University in Washington, D.C., in African-American and American history.