by Shannon Crowner
As a new student in University of San Francisco’s museum studies program, I received an email this summer from Professor Paula Birnbaum instructing our class to read Call the Lost Dream Back: Essays on History, Race, and Museums. We were told that we would be discussing the book in our History and Theory class meeting and that the author, Lonnie Bunch, founding Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, would be lecturing at University of San Francisco in October. But until I read the book and analyzed with my classmates the impact of Lonnie Bunch’s work in our field, I honestly didn’t know what a treat our class was in for.
On October 23, Lonnie Bunch was finally here at USF, thanks to the prodigious efforts of USF’s Museum Studies Graduate Association. I was fortunate to be selected, along with ten other classmates, to attend a “Lunch with Lonnie Bunch” before the event. Upon entering the room at noon, I discovered that my seat was right next to his! We enjoyed round table conversations with Lonnie about our future career goals, his passions, and challenges he’s faced as a museum professional. My burning question was: how do you literally build a national museum from the ground up? The answer: by fundraising, collecting, advocating, educating, and most importantly, believing.
After lunch, Lonnie delivered a public lecture to a large crowd of students, faculty and museum professionals about his plans for the NMAAHC. He was introduced to the audience by USF’s vice provost Mary Wardell-Ghirarduzzi as one of the most influential and important African American cultural leaders in the nation. His lecture was passionate, captivating, and motivational as he described his journey of getting where he is today. He shared a story about a trip he took to South Carolina looking for slave cabins to accession into the collection. He met a man, Mr. Johnson, who told him that “people should remember what they need, not what they want.” Conversations like this have stayed with him as he has gone about piloting this complex project. He also told us the stories behind some of the collections: Harriet Tubman’s shawl, Nat Turner’s bible, the casket that once contained the body of Emmitt Till. Bunch is determined to create a narrative of African American history that’s been glazed over for too long. He shepherded a dynamic staff and board who are not afraid of criticism, come from different backgrounds, and know the mission of the museum is greater than personal gain.
Lonnie’s vision is to use African American culture as a lens for American history. Whether you’ve been in America for 200 years, or 20 minutes: this is your story. This museum is not a place for simple answers; it acknowledges ambiguities of cultural history. In an effort to humanize stories, NMAAHC has reached out to the community for objects, oral histories, and their opinions of what they’d like to see displayed. This museum aims to set an example, domestically and internationally, by telling a story of community. For a “fly through” video of the building’s architecture, please visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9EsMpvhnN2Y
After his lecture, Lonnie signed books in Thacher Gallery and took time to connect with each of us individually. Get ready Washington: here we come! Our entire class looks forward to coming to the museum’s opening. A big thank you to Lonnie Bunch and his staff at the Smithsonian for taking the time to inspire emerging museum professionals like me to the possibilities and impact of our work and chosen career path.