Lonnie Bunch is founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. In an interview with USA Today he talks about what visitors to the museum can expect. On September 24, Barack Obama will dedicate the museum.
Q: When people walk in to the museum, what will they see?
A: They’ll get to see some amazing artifacts that I’m stunned that we have … like, oh, Nat Turner’s Bible, or a hymnal that Harriet Tubman carried with her. Or you’ll see pieces from a slave ship that we brought up from off the coast of South Africa. … But you’ll also see things that will make you smile. You’ll see Chuck Berry’s guitar. Or you’ll see the Mothership from George Clinton or you’ll see beautiful quilts that will make you realize the creativity that was at the heart of this community.
Q: Is there an object that is particularly meaningful to you?
A: I am still overwhelmed by the piece of wood that we brought up from a slave ship off the coast of South Africa. … The tribal chieftain from that community told me that when you go back to where that ship is, if you could take soil from Mozambique, where most of the people came from, and if you could sprinkle that soil over the ship, then for the first time since 1794, our people will sleep in their own land.
Q: Did you do that?
A: I did. We sprinkled the soil over the ship and we really felt the power of both ancestors and the power of helping people understand a big story, a horrific story, by looking at a piece of wood that was touched and stepped on by the enslaved.
Q: The debate about race in this country isn’t just history. Will the Black Lives Matter movement be included in the museum?
A: It’s crucial for us to help people realize that history is not nostalgia. History is this amazing tool that helps people live their lives to understand the challenges they face. When we look at things like Black Lives Matter, it’s crucially important for us to interview people involved, to go to Baltimore and interview people around the crisis there. To begin to collect artifacts — shirts that say ‘Black Lives Matter’ or the posters that people carried.
One is part of the job of any museum is to anticipate what historians will want to know 50 years from now. … The other part of it is to recognize that if you want to be a place of value, a place of meaning, you’ve got to let people to use the past to understand better the present.
Read the entire interview here.