‘You can’t be a historian of black America without being hopeful,’ says Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie BunchHistorians in the News
tags: Smithsonian, African American history, Lonnie Bunch
Lonnie G. Bunch III, 67, is secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. Previously he was founding director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. This interview was conducted April 7.
You’ve said that culture can hold people together and that the Smithsonian is glue that holds the country together. Are you hopeful that it’s able to play that role even in this divisive moment?
There’s no doubt that this is a partisan time. But you can’t be a historian of black America without being hopeful. Because this is a group of people who, in many ways, believed in a country that didn’t believe in them. So for me, there is always hope. There is always resilience. That also is what inspires me to always tell the unvarnished truth. And I would argue that in a partisan time what you need more than anything else is clarity based on scholarship, understanding and trying to find reconciliation and truth.
How are you thinking about ways the Smithsonian can be that glue in this time of isolation?
What I’ve realized is that the wonders of the Smithsonian need to get outside of the Smithsonian, so sort of really taking advantage of our digital commitment. We’ve always had a digital commitment, but it was always sort of secondary. So now everything is digital.
The second piece that’s really crucial for us to recognize is that life will never return to exactly the way it once was. So we begin to think: What’s the new normal? What does it mean for cultural institutions if people aren’t going to come back in the same numbers? What does it mean if people are now more comfortable with the digital world? What does it mean for staff who are now more comfortable teleworking? There are fundamental issues about what the new normal means. And I think you don’t try to re-create the museum digitally. It’s a very different experience. I love the social interaction that people have when they stand in front of Harriet Tubman’s hymnal or when they’re standing in front of a dinosaur trying to explain that to a 10-year-old; I want to always make sure that’s there. But we have to now think about: Okay, how do you create a different kind of interaction digitally?
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