Making the Past Present: The Founding Director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture Is at Work to Make His Vision a Reality

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON

Historian Lonnie G. Bunch III talks often about "the ancestors." On the job since July, the founding director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture knows that the "eyes of the world" are trained on him now. But he says knowing that "the eyes of the ancestors" are looking down on him is what gives him a sense of honor and feelings of both trepidation and humility.

Since discovering one of those ancestors, he hasn't let her go. In fact, she's taken up residence in his office. Her face is haggard. Her body is small. She is nameless. The black-and-white 1880s photograph is of a slave making her way from the fields. Her framed image is one of Bunch's treasures.

"This woman, clearly a slave ... is carrying a hoe that's bigger than she is, and a basket that's large. And if you look at the picture closely, her knuckles are swollen, the dress is tattered and yet she's striving forward," Bunch says. "Whenever I'm ready to quit, I look at that picture and say, if she did it, so can I. That's what history does to me. History is really the greatest inspiration that we can have."

Bunch's grandfather and parents, all graduates from historically Black Shaw College (now Shaw University), provided his early lessons in perseverance. His personal journey began in Belleville, N.J., as did his love of history and stories. History was all over his house, Bunch remembers. It filled the backyard when company came for barbeques. It was in the kitchen. The past was always present.

"In all of our lives there are places where you hear people telling stories or sharing history. I loved the notion of hearing those stories--what Jackie Robinson meant to somebody, not what he did as a baseball player," Bunch says. "That history and those stories made me realize that what I wanted to do was to help people to remember."

Bunch, a former professor of history at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, describes himself as "a drum major for African-American culture." He will be 62 when the doors of the new museum swing open. For now, he's writing, talking and instilling those he meets with excitement about a museum that at this point exists only in his mind.

"The day I was hired, this museum existed," he says. For the next year, he and a handful of staff will be figuring out how to satisfy their many constituents and crafting a vision for the nation's largest African-American history museum.

A national museum with no address, Bunch says, is a technicality. "I don't want people saying to me, 'I'll see you in 10 years when it is a reality.' It is a reality now. I just don't have a building yet." At press time, the Smithsonian board of regents was expected to select a site during its scheduled meeting in late January. Congress asked the regents to consider four sites for the first major African-American history museum. One is the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building on the Mall; a second is opposite the Washington Monument. The others are a short distance from the Mall. President Bush has weighed in, saying he favors a location on the Mall.

"ONE OF US"

Picking Bunch for the new museum post was "very appropriate and not unexpected," says Fath Davis Ruffins who's been curator of African American History and Culture in the Smithsonian's American History Museum for 25 years. But "His is a daunting task." Ruffins, author of the book Finding Our Story in the History of the Nation." A Pictorial Guide to Black History and Art in America's Museums to be published this year by Smithsonian Institution Press, is hopeful that Bunch will be able to stay the course and see the museum over the next 10 years, a conservative timetable for building a museum of this stature on the National Mall. By comparison, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum took 14 years to open. The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian took 15 years before it opened in 2004. …

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