Originally posted on GW Magazine
Story by Matthew Stoss
Photos by William Atkins
Originally, we were supposed to take a nice walk on the National Mall, eat hot dogs and maybe ride the carousel on his and his plastic horses while watching the tourists trudge and totter between the museums, monuments and bottled waters. But, alas, new Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch is a man in demand, and his time belongs to everyone else.
The former longtime GW museum studies and history professor is lord, protector and fundraiser-in-chief of the United States’ largest museum complex. The Smithsonian’s staid grandeur includes 19 museums, one zoo, some gardens, more than 6,600 employees, thousands and thousands of volunteers and a $1.6 billion budget. Bunch, a 67-year-old museum lifer and committed bibliophile with a beard that’s celebrating its 30th birthday, is so densely scheduled that even reading, once a lifestyle, has been forcibly demoted to a stolen-time hobby. He indulges in quiet moments, which are louder than they used to be.
So we’re convening on a clear, late morning at his office in the Castle, the regnant Romanesque structure that’s occupied the National Mall’s primest real estate since 1855, back when that bit of Washington, D.C., was largely undomesticated. It serves as Smithsonian headquarters. There are—again, alas—no hot dogs.
It’s the day before the Smithsonian goes dark. The coronavirus closed it, too, and you can almost see the End Times through the cherry blossoms. The secretary’s office looks like it belongs to someone who runs… the Smithsonian. Bunch, appointed by the institution’s board of regents in May 2019, is the 14th such person to do so and the first African American to hold the position. The Smithsonian was founded in 1846.
We made conversation for an hour or so at a round table, cozied by oil paintings, natural light, one long wall of glass-immured books and within a few feet of a Jon Bon Jovi-signed Telecaster. Related to that—Bunch once got a mix cassette tape from LL Cool J, an acquaintance made last year in Los Angeles while Bunch toured his freshly released memoir about his decade-long building of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Age of Bush, Obama, and Trump (Smithsonian Books, September 2019) includes and explains all the things that anyone ever wanted to know about how the museum came to be and what it took from Bunch emotionally to make it real.
In A Fool’s Errand, Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch recounts how the National Museum of African American History and Culture came to be.