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Lonnie Bunch on how the Smithsonian can help America understand its identity


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: While so much of today's news from Washington naturally focuses on the political life here, there is another well-known part of the nation's capital that's all about America's history and art.

That is the sprawling Smithsonian Institution, which houses more than 150 million artifacts and works of art and attracts some 30 million visitors a year.

In May, the Smithsonian named its newest secretary, Lonnie Bunch III.

And, last week, I caught up with him at one of the museums he oversees, Air and Space. It was his first national TV interview since taking office, and part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Lonnie Bunch has come home.

Man: It brought tears to my eyes too. I'm proud of you, sir.

Lonnie Bunch III: Thank you. Well, thank you. You guys are the best. Take care.

Judy Woodruff: Bunch calls his position 40 years ago as an education specialist and historian at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum his first real job.

Lonnie Bunch III: Actually, it's good to be back.

MAN: Yes, sir.

Lonnie Bunch III: All right. Good to see you all. Take care.

Judy Woodruff: Portraits of the Smithsonian secretaries through the years line the halls of the main administrative building.

Now Bunch is the first African-American to lead this revered institution in its 173-year history, the world's largest museum, education and research complex.

Lonnie Bunch III: If man could accomplish these kinds of things, as long as you're educated, you can contribute to making the better.

This was tied to my parents' commitment to education. And it was trying to figure out, how do these things work, how did this happen? And it really created a kind of inquisitive nature, trying to understand life.

We spent many an hour talking about going to the moon, talking about philosophy, talking about literature.

Judy Woodruff: Bunch grew up in Belleville, New Jersey, where he and his family were the only African-Americans, after his grandfather, a former sharecropper, moved to the area as one of the first black dentists in the region.

Bunch also has worked at the National Museum of American History and led the Chicago Historical Society. Then he was the founding director of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, one of the hottest tickets in Washington.

Bunch says he believes every part of the Smithsonian can drive home the importance of history to everyday life.

Lonnie Bunch III: There is something so powerful about seeing this stuff.

Judy Woodruff: Yes. Yes.

Lonnie Bunch III: And so you want people to engage and feel that feeling of the richness of an artifact.

The Smithsonian is a place that's as much about today and tomorrow as it is about yesterday.

Judy Woodruff: Bunch is the first museum director to become secretary in decades. We talked in his office about the challenges that lie ahead, as he now oversees a $1.6 billion annual budget that supports 19 museums free to the public, nine research centers, 21 libraries and the National Zoo.

Twenty-nine years you have spent one way or another connected to the Smithsonian. What does it mean to now be the head of it, the secretary?

Lonnie Bunch III: Well, it's both humbling and frightening.

So, for me, it's about helping the Smithsonian be the place that is the glue for America, and that helps America grapple with who it is, helps it understand itself and its world.

Judy Woodruff: There are a lot of firsts connected with you, the first historian to become the secretary.

Lonnie Bunch III: I think being the first historian means that you view the world through a different lens.

You're always looking, how do you contextualize, how do you help people understand by looking back? And so what I hope is that I can help the whole Smithsonian be the place that people look to not just to visit, but for answers to help them live their lives.

Judy Woodruff: You grew up at a time when this country was very much in the throes of a civil rights conflict.

Lonnie Bunch III: Right.

What it meant is that I had to learn to negotiate race at an early age. And one of the ways I tried to do that was by learning, looking at history, by understanding the history of this town, because I wanted to understand why some people treated me wonderfully and other people treated me horribly.

I remember walking to elementary school. There were these little girls that would sit on a porch. And as I walked by, they would always yell: "Oh, God left you in the oven too long. You're too, too, too, too dark."

And I didn't understand that. And I thought that history would be my way of understanding myself. And then, later, I realized history was my way to understand the country. It helped me understand that the key for my success is to embrace ambiguity, to understand that I have got to be nimble, to understand that there are shades of gray, and that, in essence, it taught me that there were no simple answers.

Judy Woodruff: Do you come into this job with fully formed ideas about what you want the Smithsonian to be?

Lonnie Bunch III: Well, I think, in some ways, it is recognizing that the Smithsonian is unbelievably venerated and visited.

And now the question is how can it be a value in the traditional ways, doing with great exhibitions, wonderful education programs, but how it also can give people tools to live their lives, to understand climate change, to understand ethnicity and race, to understand scientific innovation, where you think about the products that we create and to make sure they have a contemporary resonance.

So, for example, if you think about Deep Time and the dinosaur hall, what is so powerful about that is, yes, it reflects all the new science, but it also raises issues of environment and climate.

Judy Woodruff: And you mentioned climate change as something that you want to incorporate into the perspective.

Lonnie Bunch III: Well, I think it's already there. And so the key is to just be clear with it, so people understand, not that there is a political agenda, but that we're really saying, the Smithsonian is an educational institution, and it's our opportunity and responsibility to help you understand the world you're grappling with today, so to make sure that what we're doing is not just educating within our spaces, but really shaping the educational system of America.

Judy Woodruff: And how do you do that?

Lonnie Bunch III: One of the ways to doing this to create a virtual Smithsonian, is to recognize that millions and millions of people come to the Smithsonian every year, but millions more will never have that opportunity.

So, for me, it's really trying to find the balance between the traditions and innovation.

Judy Woodruff: You have written about the influence of politics in funding of museums. It doesn't get any more intense here in Washington.

We are now living in what I think most people believe is the most politically polarized time since maybe even the Civil War in this country.

How do you navigate that?

Lonnie Bunch III: Partly, I learned a lot in Chicago. Chicago's politics are pretty interesting as well.

But I think that the reality is that the Smithsonian is nonpartisan. I feel that I have very strong relationships on the Hill and in the White House, and that my notion is that everybody who cares about America should care about the Smithsonian.

Judy Woodruff: And you talk openly about your commitment to diversity.

Is the Smithsonian today as diverse as you want it to be in every respect?

Lonnie Bunch III: No.

The Smithsonian has done a much better job. And we're very good, better on issues of gender. I won't be the secretary just in search of diversity and inclusion. But it's real clear to me that we can't be the institution that matters to Americans if we don't reflect that diversity.

Judy Woodruff: I ask in part because some people say, well, wait a minute, are we going to see a Latino American museum, a museum of American women in history, a museum of the LGBT community?

How do you think about all that? Because I -- we know there are pressures to come up with something to serve each one of these communities.

Lonnie Bunch III: My whole career has been about expanding the canon, making sure that the history, the culture that is explored reflects the diversity of America.

So, that's not going to stop. I think that, at this stage, it's up to Congress to determine whether or not we build new museums.

Judy Woodruff: With so many big decisions to make, Bunch said he likes to surround himself with a few reminders of the Smithsonian's massive collection that have personal meaning for him.

Lonnie Bunch III: Well, I think, if you look at the hoe, the hoe is taller than she is. The basket is heavy. Her arm is straining.

Judy Woodruff: The 1890s photo called return to the fields by Rudolf Eickemeyer of a woman in North Carolina is titled "Return to the Fields."

Lonnie Bunch III: I make sure it's with me wherever I am. And I can always see it, so, no matter how bad the day is, I'm saying, it's better than what she has got.

Judy Woodruff: Bunch says he hopes everyone who comes to the Smithsonian will find inspiration, as he has.

Lonnie Bunch III: The breadth of the Smithsonian is part of the wonder of it.

And I don't ever want to lose that. I don't want to ever lose where you can walk from understanding dinosaurs and gems, to understanding race, to looking at the history of the American presidency, to suddenly looking at the lunar lander, and recognize how central science is to the world that we live in today.

So, that, to me, is the great joy of the Smithsonian.

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