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“I wanted a museum that was a tool to help people find a useful and useable history that would enable them to become better citizens; a museum that would explore and wrestle with issues of today and tomorrow as well as yesterday,” writes Lonnie G. Bunch III in A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Age of Bush, Obama, and Trump (9).
Bunch wrote the passage while he was the founding director of the Smithsonian’s nineteenth and newest museum. Then, in the months leading up to the book’s publication and just two and a half years after the museum had opened its doors, he was named the fourteenth secretary of the Smithsonian, becoming the first African American to attain that position.
Few of us will ever have Bunch’s mandate to transform a century-old and often controversial dream into reality on a world stage, but we do have the opportunity to follow along, learn, and marvel as he recounts and reflects with great candor on the complex endeavor that began with no collection and no building, and little in terms of funding or staff.
The book’s title was inspired by A Fool’s Errand: A Novel of the South During Reconstruction, written in 1879 by Albion W. Tourgée, a white abolitionist and lawyer who, according to Bunch, spent time in the South to help guarantee that former slaves would have the same rights and protections accorded all citizens. In his preface, Bunch writes empathetically, “To Tourgée, a ‘fool’s errand’ was worth the risk, the fear, and the costs because it was a noble cause that was essential and could help a people, a nation, heal” (x).
Bunch, a historian who also served as president of the Chicago Historical Society and associate director for curatorial affairs at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History during his illustrious career, loves to tell a good story. He recalls how he borrowed a crowbar to force open a door to gain entry to the rental space in L’Enfant Plaza, about a quarter of a mile from the Smithsonian campus, that served for several years as the museum’s first office (17–18). The street smarts that he credits to his North Jersey upbringing—combined with his knowledge, experience, connections, and affability—enabled Bunch to continue opening closed doors, whether he was raising money, resolving thorny issues, or navigating the Byzantine bureaucracy of Washington.
However, it was the building of a national collection that was Bunch’s biggest concern. He explains how curators of color generally struggle to develop traditional exhibitions because they believe there is a dearth of significant artifacts (90). However, on one of many sleepless nights, as Bunch tells it, he watched a television program called Antiques Roadshow. It reminded him of a time during his tenure at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles when he was curating a show called Black Angelenos: The Afro-American in Los Angeles, 1850–1950. After tea at the home of one of the “doyennes of black Los Angeles,” during which she insisted there was nothing of value in her garage, he rummaged through some dusty boxes only to discover “a treasure trove of objects” for his exhibition (91).
Such influences and recollections led to a series of “Save Our African American Treasures” events all over the country. The initiative provided the future museum with a platform for increasing visibility, building relationships, supporting local museums, and inspiring donors (95–96). Smithsonian experts offered guidance to people on how to best preserve objects of meaning they had brought to the events. Museum curators and conservators, as well as attendees, gained a deeper understanding of local and family histories and why their objects, passed down through generations, were so important (94).
Bunch shares some of the more colorful adventures and emotional moments that led to the acquisition of significant artifacts for the museum (such as Nat Turner’s Bible from the 1830s, the shawl given to Harriet Tubman by Queen Victoria around 1897, and the casket of Emmett Till from 1955), as well as the long-term loan of relics recovered from the 1794 wreckage of the Portuguese slave ship São José-Paquete de Africa off the coast of South Africa.
Collecting African American art that “would be enriched by the framing and contextualization that is the work of a museum of history” (100) was critical for Bunch, and he recalls that BET founder Robert Johnson’s deed of five significant works by Elizabeth Catlett, Henry O. Tanner, Frederick C. Flemister, Romare Bearden, and Archibald Motley greatly influenced other such donations of art (101).
According to the museum’s educational and easy-to-navigate website, its collection of artifacts, documents, and photography and other media includes approximately thirty-seven thousand items. About a tenth of that number is on view in the building, which was also a daunting challenge. The chapter on “Designing a Dream” contains important lessons about vision, perseverance, and compromise for anyone planning to build a new museum.
While the five-acre site for the museum seemed ideal for its prominence on the National Mall amid important monuments and memorials, it also sits above an underground creek and within a one-hundred-year flood plain (197). At one point, Bunch questions his decision to push for a deeper excavation to accommodate more impressive history exhibits as the hole fills with water (198). However, he stands strong as solutions are explored, and he even survives a near fall into the eighty-foot chasm during one of his many visits to the construction site (199).
Bunch describes in vivid detail the complicated logistics required to transport and install a Jim Crow–era Southern Railway passenger car weighing some seventy-seven tons from Kentucky and a twentieth-century concrete-and-steel prison tower from Angola, Louisiana, within the exhibition space before the roof was built. Once in place, the objects could not be moved. The exhibitions would have to work with and around them in perpetuity.
The reader is led through the entire design process, from the hiring of architects David Adjaye and Philip Freelon to finding the “appropriate tension between creativity and reality” (85). While admitting regret that he did not hold out for bronze as the material for the ornamental lattice of the building’s triple-tiered corona (84), Bunch is jubilant over the aspirational design that is firmly rooted in the African diaspora while it addresses humankind’s future as the first sustainably designed museum on the mall.
Such a structure required massive funding, starting with the pledge of $250 million from Congress and a matching amount from the private sector (118). Bunch had a strategy that involved thirty “angels” or members of the House of Representatives and the Senate who would speak favorably and quell criticisms as the need arose (150). In terms of the White House, he relied on enthusiastic support from both the Bush and Obama administrations. He describes how the capital campaign that was undertaken with the fundraising arm of the Smithsonian and the museum’s council appealed to the largest number of potential private donors, large and small, by positioning the museum as an unparalleled opportunity to unite the country.
Bunch is grateful that he had the good fortune to build a diverse and caring community of colleagues. He explains in chapter 9 why and how he weighed what the impact would be if a non–African American held a particular job and how he ensured that everyone felt like they were making contributions. This was particularly important while the collection and building design were in flux and staff had to embrace ambiguity and flexibility (161), as well as new scholarship, in order to develop exhibits that would be relevant to all Americans; reflect authenticity, excellence, and innovation; provide moments of drama, debate, and reflection; and meet high expectations from a variety of stakeholders.
Audience surveys made it clear to Bunch that “the public had a limited understanding of the arc of African American history” (159). Therefore, he felt that a portion of the exhibits had to offer a historical narrative that included familiar events and stories. He is proud of the tiered history galleries underground that cover slavery and freedom from 1400 to 1877, the era of segregation from 1876 to 1968, and a changing America from 1968 onward. Visitors rise “from the depths of the past to a changed present and future of undefined possibilities” (171) as they enter galleries aboveground that reveal how African American communities, despite obstacles, “made a way out of no way” (164) and that include exhibits celebrating contributions and achievements in the military, sports, and cultural expression.
Bunch wants America to “embrace a truer, richer understanding of its heritage and its identity” (161). Throughout the book he mentions that making his ancestors smile was his barometer for the museum’s success. In 2018, the stars aligned when His Imperial Majesty Ooni Adeyeye Enitan Babatunde Ogunwusi Akanda, the traditional ruler of the Yoruba kingdom in Nigeria, toured the museum and said to Bunch, “This museum makes your ancestors proud. And I know they are smiling” (261).
Lecturer, Museum Studies Graduate Program, Johns Hopkins University