Lonnie Bunch is astonished the African-American History Museum has become a pilgrimage site so fast

Historians in the News
tags: National Museum of African American Art and Culture, Lonnie Bunch

Lonnie Bunch, executive director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American Art and Culture, shares his thoughts on the past year as the museum celebrates one year on the National Mall.


If you've ever listened to this program over the past couple of years, our next guest will not be a stranger to you. Lonnie Bunch is the founding director of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. It's a part of the Smithsonian Institution here in Washington, D.C. Long before the museum opened its doors though, Lonnie Bunch checked in with me and with my predecessors on this program to talk about how the museum and its collections were taking shape. The museum opened its doors officially a year ago today, so we thought, what better time to invite him back to tell us how it's going? Lonnie Bunch, welcome back. And let me be one of the many to say happy anniversary.

LONNIE BUNCH: Oh, thank you. We're so pleased to get through and survive that first year.

MARTIN: Well, you know, to that end though, I mean, like a parent of a newborn, I mean, the museum has only been open for a year but you've been with the project since 2005. So I have to ask, you know, how does it feel to see your baby turn 1?

BUNCH: It's almost unimaginable. You work so hard for something. And then to say, my goodness, we actually pulled this off. We were able to raise the funds, find the collections. So I am overjoyed every day and still stunned that we did it.

MARTIN: You know, I have to ask if you've been surprised by the response? I mean, the demand for tickets was so high at one point that I believe that the website froze. I mean, you'd expected the average visitor to stay for two hours. In fact, the average time that people spent in the museum is four hours. Were there things that surprised even you?

BUNCH: I didn't expect it to become a pilgrimage site so soon. It's really become a place where you see both intergenerational sharing and really sort of interracial dialogues. And I didn't expect that. I also didn't expect so many crowds. You know, we thought we'd get 4,000 people a day. We're getting 6,000, 7,000, 8,000 a day. I didn't expect that. ...

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