Before he was named the head of the massive Smithsonian Institution, Lonnie Bunch III ran the Chicago Historical Society, now known as the Chicago History Museum.
In between those jobs, Bunch was tapped to create the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. It was a 10-year endeavor to build the museum from scratch, a job that included collecting and curating 40,000 items from around the country. He even ran an “Antiques Roadshow”-style events in 15 cities to get people to donate their family treasures.
“We had to go around the country to find the stuff and so we began in Chicago,” Bunch said. ”I remember it was 10 degrees below zero. My staff was like, ‘Well, Lonnie, this is a fiasco.’ But when we came, hundreds of people showed up. They brought amazing artifacts. We helped people give them to local museums first, but if they were really nationally significant, they came back to the Smithsonian.”
Bunch says that 70% of the museum’s collection comes from people’s basements and attics. Those artifacts help tell stories not only about the achievements of black Americans but also the horrors of slavery and the struggle for civil rights.
Bunch started his new job Monday as secretary of the Smithsonian, where he leads its 19 museums and galleries, the National Zoological Park and a number of educational and research centers. He is the first African American and the first historian to lead the Smithsonian.