Curator Lonnie Bunch is overseeing his most important collection ever— the history and culture of a people

Historians in the News

As Barack Obama's historic presidential campaign unfolded last year, a certain official at the Smithsonian Institution was holding his breath with particular intensity. The official was Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the Smithsonian's planned National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), in Washington, D.C. n Bunch and his staff realized how having an African-American in the White House for the first time could energize the envisioned museum's startup efforts. With Obama's ascension, the black experience, long minimized in, if not excluded from, American historical storytelling, suddenly is poised to be more fully integrated into the national identity.

The way things have gone amounts to something of a role reversal. In 2003, when Bunch was president of the Chicago History Museum, Obama, then a young, ambitious state senator, called to invite himself to a gala celebrating the 20th anniversary of Harold Washington's election as mayor of Chicago. Now that Obama is the 44th president of the United States and arguably themost recognizable person on the planet, this time it will be Bunch doing the phone calling.

"It is hard to imagine that, a little more than five years ago, that museum event in Chicago was a tool [Obama] used to increase his visibility," Bunch says. Bunch is quick to note that Obama's success is no final chapter in the black struggle. "His election," he says, "does not end the discussion on race in America. It really marks a new beginning, and that is our opportunity."

In addition to producing an uptick in interest from donors and sponsors, the election has generated more haste in obtaining artifacts. On Nov. 5, with the election scarcely over, curators and collectors for the African-American museum raced into Northern Virginia's Obama headquarters in Falls Church to sweep up items.

"Too many times I've seen collections that were missing the little things, everyday things that you can touch and see that do the best job of showing visitors how something took place," says Bunch, whose staff gathered furniture, banners, photographs, notepads, strategy charts and everything else that helps tell a campaign story. "This is what we always will be looking for."...
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