Key takeaways

  • Secretary of the Smithsonian Lonnie Bunch oversees the Smithsonian Institution’s 21 museums, 21 libraries, the National Zoo and several research and education centers.
  • Bunch’s endeavors included serving as the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, where he oversaw building the first collections for the National Museum of African American History and Culture – inspired, in part, by an idea from “Antiques Roadshow.”
  • The annual Luskin Lecture for Thought Leadership is presented by the UCLA College, UCLA School of Law, the Luskin School of Public Affairs and the Division of Social Sciences.

At times, the eighth annual Luskin Lecture for Thought Leadership felt less like a formal talk and more like a relaxed neighborhood get-together — and that’s just how Lonnie G. Bunch III, the 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, wanted it.

“To me, working in a museum at its best is like a backyard barbecue,” Bunch said. “You keep bringing people in and Uncle Joe says something, and then Aunt Mary says something else, and by the time they finish, the conversation has gone places you’d never expect.”

In conversation on April 15 with moderator Robin D. G. Kelley, UCLA distinguished professor and the Gary B. Nash Endowed Professor of U.S. History, Bunch discussed his work overseeing 21 museums, 21 libraries, the National Zoo, numerous research centers and several education units and centers — as well as his Bruin connections that include conducting research on Black Los Angeles at UCLA.

“So much of Secretary Bunch and the Smithsonian Institution’s incredible mission is echoed in the work we do right here at UCLA,” said Abel Valenzuela, interim dean of social sciences. “Let us celebrate our shared Bruin commitment to preserving history while mentoring and developing the future leaders who will shape and protect it.”

An annual collaboration among the UCLA College, UCLA School of Law, the Luskin School of Public Affairs and the Division of Social Sciences, the Luskin Lecture for Thought Leadership was established in 2011 thanks to the generosity of Meyer and Renee Luskin.

In addition to describing his very first Smithsonian interview at the beginning of his career — “I was thinking I wouldn’t get the job due to my big Afro and Army officer’s jacket” — Bunch spoke about growing up in the predominantly Sicilian community of Belleville, New Jersey.

Although his family, with three generations of college graduates, had more education than most of their working-class white neighbors, Bunch learned some harsh lessons as “the only Black kid in town,” particularly when a friend’s mother served all the other children Kool-Aid but told him to drink out of the garden hose after a basketball game.

“I never forgot that pain. So I said, maybe if I understand the history of his town, it would help me understand myself, and later, that let me think about if I could understand history, I could understand America,” Bunch said. “I realized that history was the greatest tool to understand what a country could be.”

He carried that vision and wisdom as he embarked on one of the most ambitious museum projects in American history more than 100 years in the making — turning the National Museum of African American History and Culture from an idea to a reality in the face of overwhelming obstacles. (Fittingly, he titled his book detailing the process “A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Age of Bush, Obama, and Trump.")

For the museum to be a success, Bunch realized, it would need to be framed as a quintessentially American story that encompassed everyone. He wondered how they would find the collections the nascent museum would need.

Inspiration struck one night when he fell asleep watching a baseball game on television and awoke to see “Antiques Roadshow.” Using an updated version of the show’s format and calling it “Saving African American Treasures,” Bunch and his team traveled the country, offering tips for how people could preserve their beloved heirlooms, connecting others to local museums and accepting donations for especially historic items.

The incredible finds included Chuck Berry’s “candy apple red” Cadillac — which the legendary musician only agreed to after Bunch’s colleague joined him for a “lunch” of 25 ice cream sandwiches — and a box of previously unknown Harriet Tubman materials donated by a 6-foot-3 former football player.

“He pulled out this box and there was a picture of Harriet Tubman’s funeral that I had never seen,” Bunch said. “He got so excited he punched my shoulder. He ended up pulling out 33 things and hit me every time — I was crying, and I couldn’t tell if it was from the pain or the amazing finds. When he pulled out a hymnal that had all the spirituals that Harriet Tubman sang, I remember thinking: We can do this.”

Bunch also discussed the next two museums in development — the National Museum of the American Latino and the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum — as well as some exciting new acquisitions, including an 18th-century manuscript handwritten by Phillis Wheatley, the first African American to publish a book of poetry.

Before the conversation ended, he also took a moment to reflect on the fact that while many have celebrated his status as the first Black Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, equally important is the fact that he is also the first historian in that role.

“How do we get people to understand the passion and excitement of history?” Bunch said. “I asked the author David McCullough what the secret of his success was, and he said, ‘I humanize history and let people own it.’

“When I was doing work on Reconstruction, I was really struck by the hope of people who shouldn't have believed in a country that didn't believe in them — but they believed that there could be a promised land of possibility. I want everybody to get that excited, and believe that, using history, they really can change a nation.”