By George Kevin Jordan, Special to the AFRO
Lonnie G. Bunch III has been named the 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian, making him the first African American to hold the position, in its 74-year history.
The Smithsonian Institution’s Board of Regents announced Bunch’s new appointment this week, which officially starts June 16th.
Bunch holds the title of founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in September 2016. Bunch, has spent more than 35 years in the museum field and oversees the nation’s largest and most comprehensive cultural destination devoted exclusively to exploring, documenting, and showcasing the African American story and its impact on U.S. and world history.
“I am humbled and honored to become the 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution,” Bunch said of the new position.
“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. “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.”
“I am excited to work with the Board of Regents and my colleagues throughout the Institution to build upon its legacy and to ensure that the Smithsonian will be even more relevant and more meaningful and reach more people in the future.”
The Regents’ Board Chair, David Rubenstein, and Vice Chair Steve Case, led an 11-member search committee.
“Lonnie is a deeply respected scholar, educator and leader,” Rubenstein said. “In looking for someone who would shepherd the Institution into the future, we wanted to find a special person with equal parts talent and passion. Fortunately, the ideal choice for our next Secretary was already an integral part of the Smithsonian family.”
“After working at the Smithsonian in various capacities over three decades, and then birthing a wildly successful startup within the Smithsonian, Lonnie has the benefit of knowing the Smithsonian intimately,” Case said. “Now Lonnie will bring his insights and passion to reimagining the Smithsonian of the future, and creating a culture of agility and innovation to expand the Institution’s impact. The Regents stand ready to support Lonnie’s vision for driving cross-institutional collaboration to create a virtual Smithsonian that can reach everybody, everywhere.”
Under Bunch’s leadership, the National Museum of African American History and Culture came to life. When he started as director in 2005, he had one staff member, no collections, no funding and no site for a museum. Driven by optimism, determination and a commitment to build “a place that would make America better.”
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.
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 the National Air and Space Museum.
Bunch received his master’s (1976) and bachelor’s (1974) degrees from American University in Washington, D.C., in African American and American history. He is married to Maria Marable-Bunch, associate director for museum learning and programs at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.
Bunch began his Smithsonian career as an education specialist and historian at the National Air and Space Museum from 1978 to 1979.
Bunch was curator of history and program manager for the California African American Museum in Los Angeles from 1983 to 1989. While there, he organized several award-winning exhibitions, including “The Black Olympians, 1904–1950” and “Black Angelenos: The Afro-American in Los Angeles, 1850–1950.” He also produced several historical documentaries for public television.
Born and raised in surrounding parts of Newark, New Jersey, Bunch has held numerous teaching positions at universities across the country, including: American University, George Washington University, both in Washington, D.C.