Washington, D.C.– The National Museum of African American History and Culture director faces numerous challenges in creating the official African-American Smithsonian Exhibit. Among the biggest, of course, is: What story will it tell? As part of the Smithsonian, the museum bears the burden of being the “official” — that is, the government’s — version of black history, but it will also carry the hopes and aspirations of African-Americans.
In the late 1970s, when Lonnie G. Bunch III had his first job at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, veterans of the Tuskegee Airmen, the all-black squadron, accused the museum of playing down their contributions during World War II. In response, the museum asked some of the African-Americans on staff to allow their faces to be used on mannequins, increasing the “black presence” in its exhibits.
Thirty years later Mr. Bunch, and African-American history itself, are part of a Smithsonian museum, but in a very different way. As the director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Mr. Bunch, 58, is charged with creating an institution that embodies the story of black life in America.
“This is not being built as a museum by African-Americans for African-Americans,” Mr. Bunch said, setting it apart from the museums that have sprung up to celebrate the achievements of various ethnic groups. “The notion that is so important here is that African-American culture is used as a lens to understand what it means to be an American.”
The goal is “to make sure people see this is not an ancillary story, but it’s really the central story of the American experience,” Mr. Bunch said. (The fact that it will be a separate museum, next door to the National Museum of American History, might seem to complicate that message, but Mr. Bunch doesn’t seem bothered by that.)