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African-American History Museum Celebrates One-Year Anniversary


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.

MARTIN: You know, to that end though, I'm thinking back to the opening ceremony a year ago. President Obama, former President George W. Bush, they rang a bell to officially open the museum to visitors. Now, since that time, you know, we've had this very contentious election during which a lot of kind of racial animosity has come back out into the open. I mean, white supremacist groups marching in the streets. Somebody even left a noose at the museum. Have you noticed any changes in the way that visitors are interacting with each other or with the exhibits this year?

BUNCH: I think what's really clear is that people need to find a place where they can understand history, that they can get the facts, places where they feel free to have the conversations. We've noticed a great movement towards the museum in a way that's made the museum both a symbol and a metaphor. And so for many people, they come to the museum and they say, we realize that progress is not linear, but what we now believe is the museum tells us that no matter what, we can effect change.

MARTIN: Speaking of which, I mean, the museum has a robust exhibition around athletic figures, which is in the news again today. President Trump has been calling out athletes who don't stand for the national anthem, saying that they should be fired. And these protests were started as a way to raise awareness about police conduct. And I'm just wondering if this back and forth between the president and the athletes, is that something you could engage on in the museum or is it too soon?

BUNCH: Well, my belief is that this museum has to be as much about today and tomorrow as it is about yesterday. And if you go through our sports exhibit, you'll realize one thing very quickly, that sports has always been political and that it's always been a vehicle for many people, but especially for African-Americans, to push America, to demand that America treat them more fairly. So the notion that athletes protest, that athletes will kneel down, is really part of a long tradition that I think has helped to make America better.

MARTIN: That's Lonnie Bunch. He's the founding director of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. It's a part of the Smithsonian Institution. It's here in Washington, D.C. It opened its doors a year ago today. Lonnie Bunch, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BUNCH: It's always great to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.