With Lonnie G. Bunch III, who’s the founding director of the breathtaking National Museum of African American History and Culture on Washington’s National Mall, scheduled to speak 6 pm about his new book at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia on Tuesday, Oct. 15, I’m more than impressed with the outstanding feats of the first African American to lead the Smithsonian Institution of 19 museums, galleries, gardens and the National Zoo.
Bunch will discuss his book, "A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Age of Bush, Obama, and Trump," released by Smithsonian Books last month, with the president and CEO of the Museum of the American Revolution, Dr. R. Scott Stephenson, who told me previously that he’s committed to multi-cultural representation in museum exhibits.
“I can remember quite vividly how thirteen years ago I tried to talk myself out of accepting the position of Founding Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture,” Bunch writes in his insightful and fascinating book that I recently purchased as an e-book. “Why take on a task that had proven impossible to accomplish for nearly a century? Why did I think that I could craft a museum that would explore the sweep of African American history and culture without staff or collections?”
Thank goodness, Bunch more than accomplished his lofty goals, and now has risen to lead the entire Smithsonian empire.
“Lonnie Bunch guided, from concept to completion, the complex effort to build the premier museum celebrating African American achievements,” said John G. Roberts Jr., Smithsonian chancellor and chief justice of the United States, in a statement published in The New York Times. “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.”
Opening to the public on Sept. 24, 2016, today the museum, with an approximate collection size of 40,000 and 1.9 million visitors in 2018, has exhibits spanning from the start of slavery in the Americas, stretching to the American Civil War and the civil rights’ movement through to the age of Obama and beyond.
Many of the exhibits are sobering and very emotional, including one concerning the gruesome 1955 murder of the black Chicago teenager Emmitt Till in Mississippi by white racists that some scholars say ignited the civil rights’ movement.
When I visited the museum in 2017 with my wife Billie, we were in awe as we viewed state-of-the-art exhibits, many enhanced with sophisticated audio-visual presentations, about some of the most important events and episodes in American history pertaining to African Americans. The place is so expansive and informative, that if you wanted to look at each exhibit in detail, it would literally take you at least several days.
I say, without hesitation, that it should be declared one of the “Wonders of the World.”
Although I admit bias, we were particularly impressed with an exhibit about my wife’s father, Lt. Cmdr. Wesley Anthony Brown, the first black graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. And exhibits concerning the first black soldiers under President Abraham Lincoln’s Bureau of United States Colored Troops during the Civil War, including some of the almost 11,000 who trained at Camp William Penn in what today is Cheltenham Township, were also very absorbing.
Designed by the native Tanzania architect David Adjaye, the exterior of the National Museum of African American History and Culture has an ancient Yoruba motif, that is nothing less than spectacular amid the grandest buildings on the National Mall, including the nearby Washington Monument. The structure is awe-inspiring, plain and simple.
The New Jersey-native Bunch, who had spent his professional life at museums from Chicago to California and Washington, D.C., seems a bit stunned by the incredible success of the museum that he started from scratch, according to this passage in his new book:
“There is no way that we could have predicted how visible and how important the museum has become. I knew that as part of the Smithsonian Institution, the museum would have a national and international profile, but no one could have anticipated that it would become such a site of pilgrimage and meaning,” he wrote.
As I continue to read his insightful book, I can barely wait to see what his magnificent vision brings to the entire Smithsonian sphere and the nation.
Don “Ogbewii” Scott, a Melrose Park resident, can be reached at email@example.com. More information about his local history books can be found at www.kumbayah-universal.com. For more about Bunch’s Philly visit, please see: https://www.amrevmuseum.org/events/read-revolution-speaker-series-lonnie-g-bunch-iii