SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
It's been almost a year since Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old man, was shot to death by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo. Officer Wilson was not indicted by a local grand jury, and the U.S. Justice Department cleared him of civil rights violations in the shooting. But the shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old African-American man by a police officer set off a national debate about race and law enforcement in 21st century America, and it's been followed by shootings in Cleveland, Baltimore and other places across the country. Lonnie Bunch is director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is set to open next fall in Washington, D.C. He joins us from our studios in Washington. Thanks very much for being with us.
LONNIE BUNCH: Thank you. Very pleased to be with you.
SIMON: When you heard about the shooting of Michael Brown, did you say to yourself, well, we'll wait for the verdict of history or decide no, the debate's so important, we need to do something immediately?
BUNCH: One of the jobs of a museum is to not only look back but to look forward. And so once I heard about that, I knew it was very important to make sure that we collected material that might help a curator 20 years from now or 50 years from now look back and tell the story of the changing notions of race in America.
SIMON: What sort of things have you put together?
BUNCH: We've collected banners that people carried, you know, that said, hands up, a lot of the posters that people carried. But we also collected things like a gas mask that some of the people bought who protested the streets of Ferguson. And one of the things that I really think is very powerful is a sort of 4-foot-by-7-foot panel of wood that was used to protect some of the stores during the disturbances. But on the panel are hands that say, hands up.
SIMON: And I gather you've also been collecting items from the Black Lives Matter movement.
BUNCH: We have gone around and made sure that we were there when things happened in Baltimore. We looked at all the Black Lives conversations, whether it was demonstrations in New York, in Washington. And we would collect everything. But we also decided what was really important to collect was the cellphone videos and photographs that people took at various demonstrations. This allows us to get multiple perspectives from people who aren't journalists or who aren't professionals. It makes a museum's job a little tougher because part of what you want to do is to be able to interpret and analyze. But it really means that we've got a lot of raw footage that'll help the public understand what they've experienced.
SIMON: Does it happen, Mr. Bunch, at times like this, although it's contemporary events that set off a flurry of interest, at least a few people are inspired to go back and find out about some of the history, too?
BUNCH: In many ways, the goal of a museum like ours at the Smithsonian is to provide people that context to understand that racial violence is not new, but also that there are moments of possibility, moments that help people change America, whether it was the murder of Emmett Till that really sparked the modern civil rights movement. And so what we want people to realize is that these are not isolated moments. They're part of a long history, a long history of tragedy but also a long history of resiliency and protest.
SIMON: Lonnie Bunch, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which will open next fall in Washington, D.C., thanks so much for being with us.
BUNCH: My pleasure. Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.