Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture — the hugely popular, three-year-old museum near the Washington Monument, strikingly designed by David Adjaye — has been named the 14th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, succeeding David Skorton. He will begin as Smithsonian secretary on June 16.
The first African American secretary, Bunch, 66, is also the first former director of a Smithsonian museum to occupy the top spot since Alexander Wetmore, an ornithologist who served as the sixth secretary from 1945 to 1952. The 11-member search committee was led by Board of Regents chair David Rubenstein and vice chair Steve Case.
Historian, educator and author, Bunch became director of NMAAHC in 2005, when the museum was a concept with neither collection nor site. Earlier, he held Smithsonian positions at the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of American History, where he was associate director of curatorial affairs from 1994 to 2000.
In the 1980s, Bunch was a curator and program manager at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles. From 2001 to 2005, he was president of the Chicago Historical Society.
In a story about Bunch that appeared in The Georgetowner in October of 2017, Shelia Moses wrote: “The Chicago History Museum had become a perfect fit, and Chicago was perfect for him, his wife and two daughters. He had no plans to leave when the Smithsonian asked him to return. (He admits that he said no to the Smithsonian three times, until he couldn’t refuse anymore.) He knew the call was too great, so he came back to a world stage and to an effort — creating the new museum — that would take 10 years, with many more years of work to come.”
Born in Newark, New Jersey, Bunch earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in African American and American history from American University. He has taught at a number of universities, including American and George Washington, and served on the advisory boards of several museum associations.
Appointed by President George W. Bush to the Committee for the Preservation of the White House in 2002, Bunch was reappointed by President Barack Obama in 2010.
Founded in 1846 with a bequest by James Smithson, the Smithsonian is the world’s largest museum, education and research complex, comprising 19 museums and the National Zoo.