African American Museum Begins To Take Shape

The National Mall is getting ready for a new kid on the block. The National Museum of African American History and Culture isn't scheduled to open its doors until 2015, but the collecting has already begun. Founding Director Lonnie Bunch talks with host Guy Raz about how to go about building a museum.

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GUY RAZ, host:

There's a new museum going up here in Washington but right now its walls are just virtual. The Smithsonian's National Museum of African-American History and Culture is open but on the Web. The physical building won't be done for at least five years. So in the meantime, the founding director, Lonnie Bunch, is scouring the country from antique shows to shops to basements and he's looking for artifacts that tell the story of black America.

And while he's getting things organized, Lonnie Bunch has agreed to come on this program from time to time to talk about how things are coming together.

Welcome.

Mr. LONNIE BUNCH (Founding Director, Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture): Thank you.

RAZ: Tell me about the process of opening a museum of this scale. How do you go about building a museum?

Mr. BUNCH: It is clearly something not for the faint of heart. You'd start like you'd start almost of writing a writing project. What are the stories you really think you have to tell? What do you want to do that differentiates that museum from any other museum of its type in the country and in the world? And then, how do you really think about what a national museum should do?

RAZ: What about the actual physical artifacts? I mean, there are so many museums of American history all across the country, and presumably many of these museums have artifacts that would be of interest to your museum. I mean, artifacts that are important to African-American history.

Mr. BUNCH: Well, if you said to me what is the thing that worried me most going into this job - wasn't raising money, wasn't building the building, it was building the collections. I knew that there were some things. But even if I went through the entire Smithsonian, it would only give me 20 percent of what I needed.

And as I looked around the country, while there were places that had materials and objects we could use, that to be able to tell a comprehensive story, a lot of that wasn't there. One of the things we did was we created a program called Saving Our African-American Treasures. And really, the goal was to help preserve things.

So, we put together a plan. We brought in conservators and preservation experts from the Smithsonian and the local communities, and we said, listen, we're coming to your town. So, we want to do like an antique road show.

RAZ: What are some of the things that you found?

Mr. BUNCH: I'll tell you, in Chicago, what we did - what we found was a woman came in and said, you know, I got a Pullman porter's hat. Most Pullman porter hats are blue or gray. She had one that was a white leather hat, which meant that it was really used by the sort of leader of the Pullman porters whenever they were doing something like servicing presidents or big vice presidents.

RAZ: Oh, wow.

Mr. BUNCH: So it was a really rare thing. And I had only seen it in photographs. So to have it brought right in front of you, I immediately said, what are you going to do with that? And she said, I think this ought to go to the Smithsonian. And I said, I couldn't agree with you more.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Lonnie Bunch, tell us a little bit about what we could expect to see in the museum.

Mr. BUNCH: Well, one of the things that's important to me is to craft a museum that on the one hand is a place that helps you remember the African-American experience, remember the names you think you know - the Martin Luther Kings, the Sojourner Truths - but to really understand those stories that you don't know. To really understand what it was like to be an enslaved woman or to really understand what it meant for a family to leave Mississippi to the Southside of Chicago in 1917.

So, one of the things that you will see is an amazing artifact. It's - I like to call it a Jim Crow railroad car. And it looks like a old standard 1940s railroad car, until you walk in. And the first half of the car was for white passengers. Beautiful seats, amazing bathrooms for 1940; and then you walk towards the back and there was a little swinging door that said colored. And when you walked through that door, the back part was much smaller and just had benches.

And what I realized is, helping people, especially younger people, understand what segregation means. This would be a wonderful way to do it - to have people be able to walk through that car and just understand something as simple as getting from one part of the South to another, you had to sit in this kind of Jim Crow railroad car. So, those are the kind of things that we want people to see.

RAZ: But half of the funding for the museum is coming from the federal government but you've got to raise the other half. That's a lot of money. There have been some African-American history museums that have had trouble keeping their doors open. How confident are you that you can do this?

Mr. BUNCH: I've been struck by the number of average people who want to give to this museum. And the best way to sum that up is: I was in Austin, Texas. I went to get my shoes shined and it was an old black man. He's shining my shoes. He looks up and he says, you're that Washington, you know, museum guy on TV. And I said, yes. He doesn't say a word. So he finishes shining my shoes, I reach in my pocket, I give him $6, and he says keep the money for the museum.

Now, I got to be honest. I said, come on. You know, in my mind, I'm thinking: This is a shoeshine guy. He needs this money. So I push it back to him. He says to me, keep this money because if you do this museum right, my grandchildren will finally understand what I did to life and what life did to me.

RAZ: Lonnie Bunch is the founding director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African-American History and Culture. It's set to open in 2015.

Lonnie Bunch, thank you so much for coming in.

Mr. BUNCH: My great pleasure. Thank you.

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