Founding director of Museum of African American History and Culture to speak

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Lonnie G. Bunch III, historian, author, curator, educator and founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in Washington, D.C., will give a talk titled “The Challenge of Building a National Museum,” at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 1, in the Freeman Auditorium of the HUB-Robeson Center. The lecture is free and open to the public.

Bunch has spent nearly 30 years in the museum field where he is regarded as one of the nation’s leading figures in the historical and museum community. As NMAAHC director, he promotes the museum’s mission to help audiences see African-American history as American history, and provides strategic leadership in areas of fundraising, collections, and academic and cultural partnerships.

The museum is capturing considerable attention for its work in exploring the history of the international slave trade, particularly through its research on sunken slave ships. The museum’s current exhibition focuses on a Portuguese slave ship that sank off the coast of South Africa in 1794; more than half of the enslaved Africans on board perished.    

“There is a great need to help Americans understand that the history of slavery matters because so much of our complex and troubling struggle to find racial equality has been shaped by slavery,” said Bunch. “And until we use the past to better understand the contemporary resonance of slavery, we will never get to the heart of one of the central dilemmas in American life — race relations.”

National Museum of African American History and Culture in D.C.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

Image: Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC

The National Museum of African American History and Culture is part of the Smithsonian Institution and is the only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African-American life, history and culture. Established in 2003, the museum opened to the public in a new building on the National Mall in September 2016. It stands on a five-acre site adjacent to the Washington Monument and opposite the National Museum of American History. More than 600,000 people visited the museum in its first three months.

"We’re thrilled that Dr. Bunch will share with us his perspective and insights on the history of the National Museum of African American History and Culture,” said Penn State President Eric Barron, who invited Bunch to campus. “This is a fantastic opportunity to learn how the museum came into being, including its political history, the effort behind assembling collections and designing the exhibitions, and the unique story behind the architecture and construction of the new building.”

To date the museum’s collection includes more than 36,000 artifacts. Collection highlights include Nat Turner’s bible; an extensive repository of photos and film documenting everyday black life; a segregation-era Southern Railway car; African-American ephemera examining the Double Victory Military Experience; Louis Armstrong’s trumpet; Chuck Berry’s 1973 Red Cadillac Eldorado; and works by numerous prolific artists, such as Charles Alston, Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden and Henry O. Tanner.

“It’s a great honor and privilege to have Lonnie Bunch share his vast historical knowledge and experience,” said Marcus Whitehurst, Penn State’s vice provost for Educational Equity. “I had the very good fortune to be invited to the one-year anniversary of the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and it was a life-changing experience. I encourage everyone to take the opportunity to visit and experience the museum and its important, incredible collections for themselves.”

The lecture is part of a two-day visit by Bunch to Penn State. On Nov. 1, he will meet with graduate students in the College of the Liberal Arts who are specialists in American culture/history or dual-title doctoral program students in African-American and Diaspora Studies, which includes philosophy, English and history. He will discuss with the students the role of African-American historical studies in contemporary culture and education.

In addition, on Nov. 2 Penn State President Eric Barron will interview Bunch for an episode of WPSU Penn State’s “Digging Deeper,” Barron’s monthly televised talk show. The episode will air on WPSU-TV in December.

“There is a great need to help Americans understand that the history of slavery matters because so much of our complex and troubling struggle to find racial equality has been shaped by slavery. And until we use the past to better understand the contemporary resonance of slavery, we will never get to the heart of one of the central dilemmas in American life — race relations.”

—Lonnie G. Bunch III

Prior to joining NMAAHC, Bunch served as president of the Chicago Historical Society, one of the nation’s oldest museums of history. He also has held several positions at the Smithsonian. As associate director for curatorial affairs at the National Museum of American History, he helped develop the major permanent exhibition “American Presidency: A Glorious Burden.” As assistant director he developed “Smithsonian’s America,” an exhibition that explored the history, culture and diversity of the United States, which was exhibited in Japan. As education specialist and historian at the National Air and Space Museum, he developed multi-cultural instructional programs and researched and wrote the history of African-Americans in aviation.

He was appointed by U.S. President George W. Bush to the Commission for the Preservation of the White House in 2002 and reappointed by President Barack Obama in 2009. During President Obama’s inaugurations, Bunch served as an on-camera commentator for ABC News. In 2005, Bunch was named one of the “100 most influential museum professionals in the 20th century” by the American Association of Museums and in 2009 Ebony Magazine named him one of its 150 most influential African-Americans.

Bunch has served on a number of national museum advisory boards, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has held numerous teaching positions across the country, and is a prolific author on topics ranging from slavery and the black military experience to diversity in museum management and the impact of funding and politics on American museums. His books include the award-winning “Call the Lost Dream Back: Essays on Race, History and Museums,” and “Memories of the Enslaved: Voices from the Slave Narratives.” In 2017, for the World Economic Forum’s blog Agenda, he wrote “America, Slavery and how Museums can help to heal Fractured Societies.”

“You can tell a great deal about a country or a people by what they choose to remember, to memorialize in museums or monuments. You can learn even more by what a nation chooses to forget and tries to erase from memory,” wrote Bunch. “At the heart of the American experience, and throughout the globe, is the issue of race and equality. We will never be able to understand or address this issue until we come to terms with the past.”

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Last Updated November 20, 2017