Leader of Smithsonian’s African American Museum to Direct Entire Institution

Lonnie G. Bunch III

Heralded for the success of the museum he led from idea to fruition, Lonnie G. Bunch III is the first African American to lead the Smithsonian Institution.

Lonnie G. Bunch III, the museum leader who opened the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture to critical applause and huge crowds, will serve as the next secretary of the entire Smithsonian, its most senior position.

Bunch, 66, will be the first historian and the first African American to oversee the Smithsonian’s 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoological Park and research centers. He will take over on June 16, the Smithsonian announced Tuesday.

Mr. Bunch, who began his career in 1978 at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, said in an interview that, as the Smithsonians’s 14th secretary, he hoped to figure out how to make the institution “more effective in the digital space” so that it could reach a broader audience than those who might have the time to visit Washington.

“I want to help it transform America,” he said.

As founding director of the African-American museum, Mr. Bunch led a decade-long effort to create a space that would recognize the achievements of Black Americans, as well as the horrors of slavery and the struggle for civil rights. It fittingly opened on the National Mall in September 2016 at a ceremony at which President Barack Obama spoke.

“Lonnie Bunch guided, from concept to completion, the complex effort to build the premier museum celebrating African American achievements,” John G. Roberts Jr., Smithsonian chancellor and the chief justice of the United States, said in a statement. “I look forward to working with him as we approach the Smithsonian’s 175th anniversary, to increase its relevance and role as a beloved American institution and public trust.”

When Mr. Bunch joined the National Museum of African American History in 2005, he faced an uphill task: constructing a new museum from scratch, working with Congress to fund the museum, attracting big name donors and building a collection from nothing.

The result was a new public museum at the heart of Washington’s cultural landscape designed by the Tanzanian-born architect David Adjaye to evoke a crown motif from ancient Yoruban sculpture, or alternatively women’s hands lifted to the sky in prayer.

From the beginning, Mr. Bunch insisted he did not want to create a public space for a black audience only, but for all Americans. The African-American story, he said, was an American story, as central to the country’s narrative as any other, and understanding black history and culture is essential to understanding American history and culture.

Mr. Bunch said that he is open to the changes a successor might make at the museum he founded, but that one thing should not change: the mission of its being a museum that perceives its audience as all Americans. “That is the most important of all that we have done,” he said.

On Tuesday, the Smithsonian said the distinctive museum he had helped bring into being had gathered a collection of 40,000 objects and attracted  4 million visitors since it opened.

Many of the objects gathered by Mr. Bunch’s team were treasures donated by ordinary people. It ran an “Antiques Roadshow”-style project in 15 cities that encouraged people to give heirlooms from their closets and attics.

He was appointed to the secretary position following a search by an 11-member committee led by David Rubenstein, chairman of the Smithsonian Board of Regents, and Steve Case, its vice chairman.

Mr. Bunch replaces David J. Skorton, a cardiologist and former president of Cornell, who announced in December he was leaving his position to return to the world of health care and medicine as head of a nonprofit organization. He had served as secretary since July 2015.

Dr. Skorton had succeeded G. Wayne Clough, another former university president, who had led the Smithsonian for seven years.


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