Lonnie Bunch III, founding director of Washington, D.C.’s new National Mall jewel that is the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, is coming to the Minneapolis Club for a private event Thursday.
An evening of cocktails, hearty hors d’oeuvres plus conversation is being hosted by philanthropist Wendy Dayton, a Smithsonian national board member. The NMAAHC (as it’s called in acronym-loving D.C.) opened in September 2016 and is the newest Smithsonian museum.
When Bunch talked to me by phone this week, two thoughts about Minnesota were top of mind. “One of the things I love about the Twin Cities is how it’s been such a supportive community for this museum. Many corporations — Target, 3M, Medtronic — have [helped] us be the kind of museum we wanted, [including] General Mills and UnitedHealth Group. The other thing is, I gather a book just came out on the photographs of John Glanton. Do you know this book?”
Not yet, I said. “He was an engineer who was a photographer for whatever the black newspaper was in Minnesota. A new collection of his work that documents black Minnesota [in the] ’40s and ’50s just came out. If you’ve missed it, you should look at that.” The book is titled “Double Exposure: Images of Black Minnesota in the 1940s.”
While I haven’t seen the Glanton book, I told Bunch I did notice the Prince and Sheila E clips in a theater-in-the-round entertainment exhibit at his museum.
“That’s wonderful. I’m pleased,” he said. “I’m glad. We wanted to try to be as reflective of the diversity in the many different communities that shape the African-American experience. I’m pleased that worked for you.”
This is Part 1 of my conversation with him.
Q: I’ve been to your museum twice and feel as if I could go once a month for the next two years and not take in everything.
A: That was one of the goals, to give people an understanding of the depth and complexity of the African-American experience. I didn’t want anybody to be able to say “I can quickly go through this story.”
Q: How often do you roam there to observe the reactions of museum-goers?
A: I’m usually in the gallery at least once a week. Part of challenge is that I’m so visible it changes the experience [laugh]. People stop and want to talk to me. But I walk through and I watch people cross racial lines, gender lines and talk about history, talk about why these things are important. I see grandparents sharing with grandchildren stories about the civil rights movement. So it’s become a place that is almost like a backyard barbecue. People come together even if they don’t know each other and the experience bonds them forever. They share things they hadn’t anticipated sharing, and they come away changed.
Q: Are you surprised that the museum became such a hot attraction?
A: Nope ... I knew it was going to be popular because when we started we had a membership program before there was a building or anything. Hundreds of thousands of people signed up to be members. So I knew there was a great deal of interest. But candidly, no one knew it was going to become the pilgrimage site it’s become. It’s a place where almost everybody, regardless of race, feels they need to experience and be part of, and so we didn’t expect that but we knew it would be important.
Q: It is a brilliant space for countless reasons, but I note two. One: The “time traveling elevator” that gives the illusion of going back as you are deposited on the bottom floor. Two: My achy knees appreciated as genius the aisles that are graduated inclines with plateaus. I fully appreciated the design because I was pushing my daddy in a wheelchair.
A: We thought it was important to create a very rich experience of history. In order to do that you have to have many levels. We wanted people to realize that history is not linear. The way you travel is you go up and you go back. It’s much like the change in the status of African-Americans. There are moments of great joy, great change; then there seems to be falling back.
In a way, yes, we thought about it [the design] so it made it easier for people to walk up, but it was always to make sure nobody ever thought that it was simply a linear march to freedom and equality.
Q: Are there any preconceived notions about the history of blacks in America that you hope the museum challenges?
A: First of all, you want people to understand that there is not a single black America. Right? That the experience of black Americans if they grew up in the South, if they grew up in Chicago in the ’30s or New Jersey in the ’70s, those are very different experiences. I want people to understand the complexity of the African-American community and experience. But also I thought it was important to let everybody know that regardless of race, this is the story that has shaped all of us, all Americans. That notion that this is bigger than the story of one community was what was important to us, and I think that surprises so many people.
C.J. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and seen on Fox 9’s “Buzz.” E-mailers, please state a subject; “Hello” does not count.