2021 Lonnie G. Bunch III

Lonnie G. Bunch III, 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and Founding Director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, has contributed beyond measure to the preservation, presentation, and interpretation of the African American experience. Mr. Bunch meditated on these experiences in, among other volumes, Call the Lost Dream Back: Essays on History, Race & Museums (2010) and A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Era of Bush, Obama, and Trump (2019).

In 2005, after a distinguished curatorial career at the National Museum of American History and four years as president of the Chicago Historical Society, Mr. Bunch accepted the challenge of conceiving and creating an institution that would commemorate and continually re-imagine the experience of African Americans from the arrival of the first slave ships to the present day.

Because of his vision, tenacity, diplomatic skill, and sheer passion, this great museum opened to the public in 2016 within 1,000 feet of the Washington Monument on the National Mall.  It began as an idea with no home and no collection.  Today it holds more than 40,000 objects—many contributed by families who had sheltered them from oblivion for generations—from Nat Turner’s Bible and Harriet Tubman’s hymnal, to Emmett Till’s casket and Chuck Berry’s guitar. The NMAAHC is a living institution that combines the long narrative of African-American history with focused special exhibitions and “reflection booths” where visitors add their own memories to the ever-growing whole. Simultaneously heartbreaking and inspiring, it tells a complex yet gripping story that reflects its founder’s conviction that “one can tell a great deal about a country by what it remembers” and his admonition that “one learns even more about a nation by what it forgets.”

The Society of American Historians is honored to honor Lonnie Bunch.