‘My Job Was to Make People Believe’: Director of Museum of African American History Anticipates Opening

After 11 years, Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture will open Sept. 24 on National Mall

What to Know

  • The museum seeks to help people understand and take pride in African American history, Bunch said.
  • Bunch has spent nearly 11 years traveling the country to raise interest and capital for the new museum.
  • Bunch said he hopes people will see visiting the museum as a "pilgrimage."

As a young boy, Lonnie Bunch could not understand why he was treated differently. One of the few African Americans in a predominantly Italian New Jersey town, Bunch said some people were kind to him while growing up, but others treated him "horribly."

That's what Bunch, now the director of the Smithsonian's upcoming National Museum of African American History and Culture, says first led him to his interest in history.

"I thought that maybe if I could understand history... if I could understand how people interacted with people, it would help me live my life better," he said.

Bunch spent nearly 11 years traveling the country to raise interest and dollars to help build a museum of African American history on the National Mall.

Now, it's all coming to fruition. The newest Smithsonian will open Sept. 24, with a collection set to highlight history, community and culture through tens of thousands of artifacts. At the museum's opening, 33,000 items will be on display, out of the nearly 37,000 collected so far.

"I think a lot of people will see this as a pilgrimage," Bunch said. "That is, a place to come to celebrate themselves, to feel better about themselves, and maybe to learn about themselves in a kind of rich way. And really what you hope is that this will contribute to the way people think about themselves and the way they think about America."

Bunch wants to help others understand slavery as something that "in so many ways profoundly shaped the American experience."

He said he wants people to take pride in their enslaved ancestors.

"I wish I were as strong as my enslaved ancestors -- people who got up every morning and wouldn't let the fields strip them of their humanity and humor," Bunch said. "I wish I had that strength, and hopefully we can convey that to people who walk through this museum."

Bunch said he's always wanted to learn about the past. He said he used to look at old photographs and wonder, "What was their life like? Were they happy? Were they treated fairly?"

He remembers looking at photographs of children born in the 1870s with his grandfather as they read together. He said it "really hit me" when his grandfather pointed out that the children in the picture were unidentified.

"I thought, 'You mean people can live their lives, die and then be forgotten?'"

Bunch said one goal of the new museum is "to help people humanize enslavement." He said he tries to gather information on the identities and lifestyles behind people in the photographs, so museum visitors can grasp the pain of slavery and take pride in the progress since then.

When he thinks of the dream of a museum finally becoming reality, "I cry," he said. "I get so emotional because for 11 years, my job was to make people believe. Believe that we could do this, believe that something would be here, believe that people would give money.... Now when I see it, it's just amazing to me. And I'll tell you what really did it -- the first time I drove up, and it was landscaped and there was grass, there were trees, and I thought, 'By God, it's real.'"

Blake Richardson contributed to this report.

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