Lonnie G. Bunch III, director of the Smithsonian’s popular National Museum for African American History and Culture, stood before the chancel of Emanuel AME Church on Thursday addressing hundreds of scholars and others eager to hear from one of the country’s most famous public historians. His message: history, when presented well, is transformative; it defines and interprets reality, it gives people hope, it makes us better.
Bunch was the keynote speaker of the conference “Transforming Public History from Charleston to the Atlantic World,” organized by the College of Charleston’s Race and Social Justice Initiative.
The initiative, made possible by grant money from Google, is a partnership between the college’s Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, Carolina Lowcountry and the Atlantic World Program (CLAW), African American Studies Program, Lowcountry Digital History Initiative and Addlestone Library.
“The presence of Lonnie Bunch indicates the conference’s national importance, and shows how critical the story of Charleston and the Carolina Lowcountry is to the national story,” CLAW director Simon Lewis said in a statement.
Bunch’s keynote address coincided with the second-anniversary commemorations of the mass shooting at Mother Emanuel, and the museum director spoke of the privilege of being in the church’s sanctuary.
“I’ve been around the world, given many lectures, but nothing humbles me like being here,” he said.
The National Museum for African American History and Culture opened on the Mall in Washington, D.C., in September 2016. It cost $540 million. Funds were provided by public and private sources. The project was a century in the making, and received official authorization in 2003.
While in Charleston, Bunch met with former Mayor Joe Riley and Michael Moore, director of the International African American Museum, to discuss challenges and opportunities, Bunch said. At the conference event, he addressed what he considers the five main challenges facing public historians:
- The parochialism and isolationism of American thinking, which leads to failures in adequately putting our history in an international context. “Slavery was the first global business enterprise,” he noted.
- The importance of placing race and ethnicity at the center of our understanding of what it means to be American. “One of the best ways is to explore America through the lens of race,” he said. “This is the story of us all; this is not a story of a particular experience.”
- The need to “seize the silences,” to scrutinize all that is omitted or minimized in historical discourse. “You learn even more about a country by what it forgets or what it wants its people to forget,” he said.
- The benefits of embracing community and building relationships so that scholars may gain a broader perspective on history and better appreciate its immediate relevance. “Most museum-community collaborations are like a middle school dance: hopeful, sometimes intimate, but brief,” he said.
- And, finally, the challenge of determining and expressing the value of public history. “We expect people to come to the museum but rarely ask ourselves about the value of the museum. Historians talk incessantly about the importance of history but rarely explain to the public why that is so.”
Bunch, amiable and eloquent, mostly was preaching to the choir, and his comments elicited appreciation and a few questions. Someone asked: How does the museum prepare for future exhibitions? What is it collecting from the current historical moment? Bunch said he and his curators meet often to discuss this. Already they have collected materials related to the Black Lives Matter movement and police violence, for example.
Another attendee asked whether historians ought to advocate for political change. Bunch’s reply was measured. He said this can be done within the context of presenting history. By illuminating key figures or episodes, museums can send clear moral messages and convey the values of society. There’s also a practical reason for historians “to be political,” he said. It’s necessary to understand our system of government and how to navigate it.
Perhaps the most touching moment came at the end when someone asked Bunch what relics from South Carolina can be found at the National Museum for African American History and Culture. Bunch scanned his memory and began to answer. “Well, we have a slave cabin from Edisto…” And then many others chimed in.
A sweetgrass basket by Mary Jackson; slave badges; ironwork by Philip Simmons; a wooden drum from the sea islands; furniture from the home of Robert Smalls…
“Oh, I forgot,” Bunch said. “This is the Museum of South Carolina!”