Smithsonian Institution announces first African American leader

PHOTO: The Smithsonian Institution’s Board of Regents announced today it elected Lonnie G. Bunch III, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.PlayMichael Barnes/Smithsonian Institution Archives
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For the first time in the Smithsonian Institution's 173-year history, an African American has been tapped to head the world's largest museum and research complex.

"You're going to make a historian cry,” Lonnie Bunch III said at a Tuesday news conference. “This is an emotional moment, because the Smithsonian means so much to me personally and professionally."

PHOTO: Secretary-elect Lonnie G. Bunch stands at the East Door of the Smithsonian Castle, May 28, 2019. Jaclyn Nash/Smithsonian Institution
Secretary-elect Lonnie G. Bunch stands at the East Door of the Smithsonian Castle, May 28, 2019.

Bunch, the founding director of the groundbreaking National Museum of African American History and Culture, has been selected following a unanimous vote by the Smithsonian’s 17-member Board of Regents to lead the Smithsonian Institution.

As the 14th secretary of the Smithsonian, Bunch will oversee the day-to-day management of 19 museums, 21 libraries, the National Zoo and numerous education and research centers for the world-renowned museum. He will also be in charge of an annual budget of $1.5 billion, a staff of 6,800 and a collection of over 150 million objects.

"It is important for the public to view the Smithsonian not simply as an addict of nostalgia, but as a cauldron of ideas of innovation and understanding that can be transformative for our country," Bunch said at the news conference.

"To accomplish this, though, the Smithsonian must become a much more nimble entity. It must be an institution that is ripe with technology, an institution better suited to serve 21st century audiences, and an institution of research, of great collections, and of wonder that helps America understand itself and its world. This will ensure that the Smithsonian will always be what it once was. It will always ensure that the Smithsonian will be a place where scholarship, creativity, education and service come together for the greater good," Bunch said.

Bunch is taking over the role as secretary from David Skorton, a board-certified cardiologist, who announced his departure in December to become president and CEO of the Association of American Medical Colleges.

While Bunch might represent historic new leadership within the organization, he is somewhat of a museum insider with over 35 years of experience in the field. In fact, in 2005, the American Alliance of Museums named Bunch one of the 100 most influential museum professionals.

Bunch is best known for his role in directing the African American history museum beginning in its early days in 2005. During the 11 years prior to its opening, he was able to secure critical federal funding of $270 million and private donations of $317 million to ensure its future.

PHOTO: Lonnie Bunch, left, director of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, left, and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. take their seats for the dedication ceremony of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Lonnie Bunch, left, director of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, left, and Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. take their seats for the dedication ceremony of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture.

“Lonnie Bunch guided, from concept to completion, the complex effort to build the premier museum celebrating African American achievements,” Smithsonian Chancellor and Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts said, “I look forward to working with him as we approach the Smithsonian’s 175th anniversary, to increase its relevance and role as a beloved American institution and public trust.”

Prior to his work at the African American history museum, he worked at the National Museum of American History for over a decade. Bunch will also be the first historian to serve as secretary and the first director of a Smithsonian museum to ascend to the top role in 74 years, according to the Smithsonian.

Bunch is set to start his new role as secretary June 16.