Opinion: Why is Lonnie Bunch’s appointment significant?

By: Jada Wright-Greene

Jaclyn Nash / Smithsonian Institution

Lonnie Bunch is considered a rockstar (as someone recently said to me) in the museum world with his new appointment. Why is he a rockstar and why is this appointment so significant? Well, for several reasons. In order to help you understand, let me explain a few things

  • Lonnie Bunch has served as the founding director of the National Museum of African American History & Culture since 2005. When he began as the leader of the museum there was one staff person, no collection, no funds and no site for the museum.
  • Under his leadership the museum opened in 2016 with astounding success of 4 million visits since its opening, a collection of 40,000 objects and meeting the fundraising goal of $250 million ($500 million in total was the target; $250 million was provided by the federal government). 
  • Lonnie Bunch is the first African American to hold this appointment since the opening of the Smithsonian Institution in 1846.
  • What does the Secretary of the Smithsonian do? The Secretary of the Smithsonian is the Chief Executive Officer of the Smithsonian Institution. Side note: The Smithsonian is not just one museum; it is the world’s largest educational and museum institution with over 19 museums and one zoo.  Yes, that means he is the leader of all of those institutions.
  • He is the first historian to hold the office of Secretary of the Smithsonian.  Why? In order to answer this question, let’s go back a bit.  The Smithsonian was founded by the funding provided by James Smith, a chemist & mineralogist, whose wishes was “under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”  Following in the leadership of the Smith, each Secretary of the Smithsonian prior to Bunch was a long list of scientists, a law professor, anthropologist, corporate CEO, president of a university and a medical doctor.
  • Lonnie Bunch has worked in the museum profession for over 35 years as a public historian, curator, professor at several universities, author and president of the Chicago Historical Society, one of the United States oldest history institutions. He has also worked in several different capacities in the Smithsonian Institution and was the curator of history for the California African American Museum in Los Angeles (one of my new favorite museums).

These milestones and accomplishments he has conquered has led him to this position as the 13th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and why in the museum world, he is our Rockstar!!

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