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A conversation with Lonnie Bunch

Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., will be honored this week by the Harvey B. Gantt Center. He spoke with Qcitymetro about various aspects of the nearly completed museum.

Lonnie Bunch

Washington, DC - November 16: The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) Kicks off the countdown to its grand opening next year by Commemorating and Celebrating three important milestones. The first being the 150th anniversaries of the ratification of the 13th Amendment and the end of the Civil War along with the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act with music, spoken word and poetry on Monday, November 16, 2015 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Leah L. Jones/For NMAAHC)

Museum of African American History and Culture, (NMAAHC) construction site

National Museum of African American History and Culture; (NMAAHC) construction site – Constitution Avenue and 14th Street image taken on Constitution site July 17, 2015.

On Saturday night at its annual Jazzy Holiday Gala, the Harvey B. Gantt Center will bestow its Spirit of the Center Award on Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

After more than 10 years of planning and fundraising, the museum is set to open next fall on the National Mall as part of the Smithsonian Institution.

Gantt Center President and CEO David Taylor said selecting Bunch as this year’s recipient was an easy decision, considering the mammoth task Bunch faced when he essentially started with nothing.

“We try to evaluate who’s making an impact, who’s making a difference, who’s making a significant contribution,” Taylor said. “And when you think about the work that he’s done, really throughout his career but particularly in the last 10 years…that has to have been an amazing amount of work and an amazing amount of vision.”

In a recent interview with Qcitymetro, Bunch also emphasized the amount of effort it has taken to bring the project to near-completion.

“We had to be comfortable with ambiguity, yet believe we could pull this off,” he said.

Of the $540 million needed, Bunch said the museum has raised about $518 million.

Here’s an edited transcript of the interview:

Q. How is construction progressing?

The building is running very well. The construction is almost done, and we’re now planning all the activities we have to do to get the exhibits and the artifacts in the building. Our goal is to make sure that President Obama can cut the ribbon next fall, before he leaves office.

Q. What has surprised you most  about this process?

The recognition that this is not a sprint but a marathon. For the last more than 10 years, we’ve really had to be nimble, read the political tea leaves, had to work with a variety of communities and constituencies. But maybe what pleased me more, rather than surprised me, was the way various communities have embraced this. We walk down the street and people say, “I’m a member.” I’m on the subway this morning and the subway is stuck, it’s not moving, and some guy looks over at me and says, “I just want you to know that I can’t wait to come to that museum.” It’s those kinds of moments that surprise me. I knew how important this would be, but maybe I didn’t realize how meaningful it would be.

Q. I know you’ve had to raise substantial amounts of money, but are you getting small donations for individual donors?

We had to raise over $540 million in federal and private money. So first of all, our biggest donor was Congress. I had to spend a lot of time making sure Congress was comfortable and supportive of what we’re trying to do. But we realized that, in order for this to work…we did need the gifts from people like Oprah Winfrey. We also needed to make sure that hundreds of thousands of people could get involved by giving $25, or $100 or $1,000, and they become charter member of the museum. So that has been very powerful to us, to make sure this is embraced by those who have and those who wish they had.

Q. Do you feel that the African American story is now being better integrated into the overall narrative of American history?

Anyone who wants to understand America’s core values, America’s identity, has to realize that that has been shaped in profound ways by the African American experience. So yes, we want people to see this from an insider’s perspective. People who care about this culture should be able to see amazing stories, but we also want people who may not realize that this is their culture. This has shaped who they are. So while I would argue that not everyone has gotten to the point of recognizing how central this culture is to who we are as Americans, that’s one of the goals of the museum. And quite candidly, people have responded very favorably to that.

Q. When you appeared on “60 Minutes,” you talked about how this will not be a museum to slavery. How do you balance that, given the role that slavery has played in shaping black America?

One of the real challenges is that, for many people, they are embarrassed by their slave ancestors. So part of what I want people to recognize first of all is that slavery is a story that’s horrific, but I wish I were as strong as my enslaved ancestors. I want people to get that out of it. But I also want all Americans, not just black Americans, to recognize that every aspect of American life — whether it’s politics, culture, foreign policy — all were shaped by the experience of slavery. So in some ways, what you want to do is shine an even brighter light on it than we’ve done in the past. …But then the other side, one of the things that has been so amazing is that we have never been defined totally by our enslavement. So for me, it’s finding tension that doesn’t let you run away from slavery but says slavery is a part but not the totality of this experience.

Q. What do you think will most surprise visitors about the museum?

I think probably the amazing array of artifacts. I think people will be stunned to see Nat Turner’s Bible, or to see a Croix de Guerre, the French version of the Medal of Honor that was given to black soldiers in World War I, or to see George Clinton’s Mothership. So you’ll see things that make you cry, then you’ll see things that make you smile, like the Mothership, like Chuck Berry’s guitar. That’s what’s going to surprise people – the quality of the artifacts are going to be comparable to any Smithsonian museum.

Q. What will be the museum’s digital footprint?

One of the major differences in building a museum today than building one 15 or 20 years ago is the digital presence. For example: social media. We have a very rigorous social media that will allow people to engage with the museum from their iPads, from their iPhones. We will have technology in the building that will allow people to delve into a subject or shape your own tour. While there will be four or five million people walking into the museum each year, there’s probably another 80 or 90 (million) who will approach it online. So we’ve really worked to create a very vigorous web presence.

Q. What keeps you up at night?

That’s a long story; you don’t have time for that. Part of it is always just finishing the fundraising. We’re so close. When I got that first million-dollar gift, I’m thinking, “Wow, we just raised a million dollars.” But then I suddenly said, “We have only 549 more million to go.” The other thing that would keep me up was, was I expecting too much of my colleagues? I realized that, in some ways, we didn’t have the opportunity to (simply) be a really good museum. We had the challenge of doing something that would make our ancestors smile, that would make our ancestors proud. And that kind of pressure kept me up, because I wanted to be excellent and innovative for them. I wanted to make sure they were remembered in the way they deserved to be. So I think that kept me up more than anything else.

Q. So will you stick around after the museum opens?

After all this work, absolutely. I want to go sit in my office and wave and take a look at the view. My expectation is that there is much work still to do, that there will be people who criticize the museum – it’s too negative, it’s too positive; it doesn’t do this, it doesn’t do that. So I want to be around to fight those fights. I want to help the museum evolve, as it should do. But the reality is…as long as there is an America, there will be this museum. So it may change in ways that I can’t even anticipate, and that’s good.


The Jazzy Holiday Gala is the Harvey B. Gantt Center’s largest, annual fundraising event. This year’s gala, a black-tie event at the Charlotte Convention Center, is sold out. Other 2015 honorees are:

• Dr. Yele Aluko and Dr. Shirley Houston-Aluko (Philanthropy and Arts Advocacy)
• Duke Energy (Corporate Citizenship and Partnership)


The National Museum of African American History and Culture was created in 2003 by an Act of Congress, establishing it as part of the Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian Board of Regents, the governing body of the Institution, voted in January 2006 to build the museum on a five-acre site on Constitution Avenue between 14th and 15th streets N.W. This site is between the Washington Monument and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. The new museum, the Smithsonian’s 19th, will be the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African American life, art, history and culture. It is expected to open in 2016. (Source: NMAAHC website)


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