New museum dedicated to African-American history

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 November, 2014, 11:11pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 November, 2014, 11:11pm

Like Atlas in ancient Greek mythology, Lonnie Bunch has an immense load to carry as founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is now under construction near the Washington Monument on the National Mall in Washington.

As Bunch enters the home stretch of a decade-long drive to conceive, build and launch the 380,000-square-foot museum, which is expected to open by summer 2016, what he's shouldered has the potential to turn into a keg of cultural dynamite. No American issue has been bigger, harder, more wrenching or enduring than race. None is more explosive. But where Atlas strained and groaned, Bunch, 61, exudes enthusiasm and an easygoing, friendly aplomb. Nine years into his job, his risky task only seems to enliven him.

The African-American experience, the smiling historian, curator and museum administrator says, "is the lens through which we understand what it is to be an American. In some ways, the African-American experience is the quintessential American experience."

Instead of siphoning objects from existing Smithsonian collections, the African-American museum set about building its own collection from scratch. It has acquired 35,000 artefacts, photographs and documents of its own, many tracked down in a series of Antiques Roadshow-like events around the country.

Oprah Winfrey, Chuck Berry and Bill and Melinda Gates have made significant contributions of money or items, but so have others of more humble means. Bunch says he was especially moved when a woman brought in a Croix de Guerre, a French medal for combat valour, that was awarded to her grandfather in 1919 for serving with the Harlem Hellfighters, a black American regiment that fought with distinction in the first world war under French command.

Collection pieces range in size from a 5cm amulet shaped like a slave shackle that was worn in West Africa centuries ago as a talisman against being seized by slavers, to the Mothership, a huge spacecraft that was the signature stage prop for 1970s arena concerts by funk-rock maestro George Clinton and his band, Parliament-Funkadelic.

The exhibits won't flinch from the most tragic episodes in African- American history, Bunch says, but they will aim to show how tragedy has been channelled into a drive for progress and change. His guiding principle is to make the museum about people more than events. "We want to bring everything to a human scale," he says. "Rather than coming and saying you've learned about slavery, you'll say, 'I've learned about people who went through that experience.'"

"I don't think there's a story or subject that we won't touch. It's a question of how you do it. Our job is not to force-feed people but to help them understand the [historic] context and bring real knowledge to the debate." Bunch talks about the museum's support from across the political spectrum, and how it has managed to avoid being turned into "a political football".

"It's the story that helps us understand how freedom comes, how citizenship is gained," he says. "It's hard for anybody to be against that."

He also enjoys moments such as the recent morning when he visited his former professional home, the California African American Museum in Los Angeles, for the first time in nearly a decade. Vida Brown, an art curator, introduced herself as someone he wouldn't remember, but told him he'd made a big difference in her life in the mid-1980s, when she was volunteering on weekends as a guide in the museum galleries.

Before each history show opened, Brown recalls, Bunch would walk the guides through the exhibition, explaining the objects.

"He was a great storyteller," Brown says. "I thought, 'If I move forward in the art arena, I want to be like him in the sense of how he told stories, how he approached people, and how he made them feel.'"

Soon Bunch will have the chance to approach people by the millions, through the museum he is now shaping. One way or another, he'll find out how he's made them feel.

Los Angeles Times