Plans for a Smithsonian African-American Museum

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Lonnie Bunch, director of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, discusses plans for a Smithsonian African-American Museum. Bunch says the museum plans to exhibit an array of objects, including the lunch counter from the legendary Woolworth sit-in in Greensboro, NC. The Smithsonian has not released a date for the museum opening.


The Smithsonian Institution is working on a new museum, one which reveals American history that often gets ignored. Lonnie Bunch is the director of the National Museum for African American History and Culture. He told Ed Gordon the history of black people should be regarded as an essential part of American history.

ED GORDON, host:

Lonnie Bunch, thanks so much for joining us. Appreciate it.

Mr. LONNIE BUNCH (National Museum of African American History and Culture): My great pleasure.

GORDON: Let's talk a little bit about what you are about to get yourself into. I guess you got a phone call from the Smithsonian, and they said, `Come on over.'

Mr. BUNCH: Yeah. They said, `You were a Smithsonian person once. Come back and help us create the National Museum of African American History and Culture,' and I said, `Yes,' and some days, I think that was the smartest thing I ever said, and other days, I think I could have done something else.

GORDON: Oh, I'm sure you'll do a fine job, and we will appreciate you for it. Let's talk a little bit about, first and foremost, why you believe this is important.

Mr. BUNCH: Well, in some ways, when you have a museum of African-American history on the Mall or in Washington, DC, as part of the Smithsonian, it really sends the message that the story of race is really central to the American experience, so that millions of visitors who go to the Smithsonian can learn and hear those stories. But it's also, I think, really important because African-American history is really a lens into what it means to be an American, to make it clear that this is the quintessential American experience, and that you really can't understand America without really understanding the full impact of race in this country and really race globally.

GORDON: I know that this is perhaps too premature, but what will we see in this museum?

Mr. BUNCH: Well, I think that what you'll see is, first of all, wonderful objects, artifacts that will tell the story of black life, whether it's things as diverse as movie posters or maybe the lunch counter from the Greensboro sit-in, but you'll see things that'll move you. But you'll also hear the stories of black life. In some ways, what museums should do when they're at their best is they tell stories that are accessible to the public. So what I want this museum to do is to have people come in and hear those stories about black life, about American life. This institution, as hard is it's going to be, is really going to allow a lot of us to sort of look back and make sure our ancestors are smiling, to see that their history is remembered.

GORDON: Where will we see this building erected? Do we know?

Mr. BUNCH: We don't yet. I expect that we will have at least the site by early next year, which then allows us to plan on what the building would look like, etc. I'd like it to happen in less than a decade.

GORDON: Will we see the Smithsonian taking on some of the things that you will bring in and erecting early displays?

Mr. BUNCH: I think so. What I've argued is the day I start work, the museum exists. So therefore, I expect to do collaborative programming around the country.

GORDON: Well, Lonnie Bunch, we wish you the best of luck, and as you've already stated, it is, though a long time coming, something that is needed, and we hope that sooner than later, we will be able to travel to the nation's capital and actually enjoy, touch and feel the things that you bring to the museum.

Mr. BUNCH: I look forward to hosting you there soon.

GORDON: All right. Thanks so much.

Mr. BUNCH: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Lonnie Bunch is the director for the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

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