How Smithsonian Selects, Rejects Donations

The Smithsonian Institution announced this week it won't accept a donation of the suit worn by O.J. Simpson on the day of his murder acquittal. Lonnie G. Bunch, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, discusses how proposed donated objects are sorted though for acceptance and rejection at the institution.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Plans are well under way for the Smithsonian newest museum, the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. Construction is set to begin in 2012, and museum staff have already started compiling its collection. But this week, the Smithsonian announced one item it won't be collecting for any of its museums: the suit that O.J. Simpson wore that day of his acquittal for double murder. Simpson's former agent who's had the suit in storage had wanted to donate it.

Well, that got us thinking about other offers the Smithsonian gets. The institution is often called the nation's attic and much like we manage our own crawlspace its curators must decide what to keep, what to showcase, what to politely reject.

For more now on how they do that, we're joined by Lonnie Bunch. He is the director of the African-American museum. Welcome to the program.

Mr. LONNIE BUNCH (Director, Smithsonian's National Museum of African-American History and Culture): Oh, thank you. Glad to be with you.

NORRIS: As you're now compiling items for the National Museum of African-American History, I'm wondering if there are things you'd just love to get your hands on.

Mr. BUNCH: We as Americans still don't have a full picture of slavery. I'd love to know more about how African-Americans who are enslaved were able to believe that a better day was coming. I'd love to have material on early African-Americans in film. And then, as an old baseball player, I'd sure love to have anything that Willie Mays touched.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: You and a lot of other people.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NORRIS: When you envision the museum, what do you see? What sorts of items help connect people to history? And I'm thinking about the Holocaust Museum and the shoes that you encounter. You understand very quickly the human toll of the Holocaust.

Mr. BUNCH: Imagine, if you will, being able to come in and experience a slave shackle that was used on the transatlantic slave trade. It's not the story of 10 million people who were enslaved. It's a story of the one person locked for weeks or months in these shackles. I want people also to be able to come in and maybe smile when they see a jumpsuit worn by James Brown, as they tap their toes to some wonderful music that Brown created in the '50s and '60s. So, what we want to do is try to give people a sweep to this experience.

NORRIS: You hold workshops for people to help them understand what kinds of things you might be looking for. And I'm wondering if it's almost like "Antiques Road Show" for you. What kinds of things do they bring in and what kind of state of mind are they in?

Mr. BUNCH: I'm always stunned by what people bring. Somebody brought a tool kit that was used by three generations of his family who were carpenters. And while initially it didn't seem all that valuable, it suddenly became a way to tell the story of his family and of the sort of skilled labor of African-Americans.

Another time, somebody brought a pillowcase that was embroidered. And it turned out to be a pillowcase that was embroidered by a woman who was enslaved, who was about to be sold the next day. So, she embroidered to her daughter saying, in this pillowcase you will find a dress, you will find some biscuits but what you'll find is that it's filled with my love. And though I may never see you again, always know how close you are to my heart. We all know about the enslaved being sold away but to see it through the lens of that pillowcase makes it real, makes it human.

NORRIS: Lonnie Bunch, all the best to you and your collecting. It's been wonderful to talk to you.

Mr. BUNCH: Thank you so much. It's always good to talk to you.

NORRIS: Lonnie Bunch is the director of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. He is a regular guest of our WEEKEND host Guy Raz. They talk from time to time about new items the museum has collected.

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