Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture Lonnie Bunch delivered the Center for African American Studies’ 18th Annual Distinguished Lecture to students and professors in Beckham Hall on April 5. In his talk, entitled “The Challenge of Building a National Museum,” he addressed his experience creating the Smithsonian’s new National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).
The new museum, scheduled for a 2015 opening, is to be located in between the Washington Monument and the National Museum of American History on the National Mall, half a mile from the White House. President Obama, Bunch, and other officials involved in the NMAAHC participated in groundbreaking ceremonies at the museum’s future site on Feb. 22.
Bunch explained that the museum has been in the works since World War I, but its creation has been delayed due to contested visions of the museum’s role and purpose. In 1994, legislation authorizing the funding and construction of an earlier incarnation of the museum failed, due to fierce Republican opposition on the part of the late Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC). Helms expressed concern that the museum would raise animosity between African and European Americans.
“[NMAAHC] is not an attempt to create an African American museum by African Americans for African Americans,” Bunch said during his talk. “It really has to be, as part of the Smithsonian, a museum that shapes us all. In some ways the challenge of this museum is to realize that when people look and think about core American values of spirituality of resilience of optimism, where better to look than within the African American community?”
Throughout his lecture, Bunch emphasized how the museum must not only exclusively focus on the more tragic episodes in African American history, but also on a positive sense of community.
“It also has to be a place that allows you to find the joy that’s in this community,” he said. “You’ve gotta be able to tap your toes to Duke Ellington, or Louis Armstrong or Aretha Franklin…[and] it has to be a place that allows you to understand, from an insider’s perspective, what this community is, and what it tries to do. Its goal has to be to re-center our thinking about race in this country. We have to create a museum that uses African American culture as a lens to better understand what it means to be an American.”
While eager to address the complexities and ambiguities of the United States’ racial history, Bunch noted the importance of coming up with a single master narrative for the museum.
“For me, it’s really about saying, ‘With all the complexity [of African American history], let me get a simple place for people to go get that history and then they’ll be more amenable to the more complex and the more ambiguous [aspects of the history,]’” he said.
Chair of the African American Studies Program Alex Dupuy, who organized the event, praised Bunch’s efforts to navigate the difficult political and social environment surrounding the museum.
“To be able to build such an institution in [such] a complex, difficult context as contemporary America takes masterful skill,” he said. “It takes an ability to convince Congress and other constituents that the project you want to do—especially a project such as an African American museum in the context of American society, given its racist history—that you can’t put a value on this [museum] for the nation as a whole. To succeed in doing that is what makes [Bunch] such a unique individual…to me there’s no one else who could have done what he’s done.”
Allegra Stout ’12, who attended the lecture, agreed with Dupuy’s assessment of the difficulties inherent to Bunch’s work.
“I appreciated that he acknowledged that there’s no way to please everyone on this and that even people with whom he might radically disagree about the contents of the museum have legitimate reasons for feeling that way and need to be acknowledged,” she said.
After his speech, Bunch stated that interested Wesleyan students should apply for internships this summer at the NMAAHC, where he and his staff will need help as the museum prepares for its opening.
“We need people, because what’s great about this moment is that if this were ten years from now most of the interns would come and work on a small project,” he said. “But because we need the core of what the museum is, [interns will] actually get to work on things that actually show up on the floor and shape it.”