If you had no idea who Lonnie Bunch was, upon first introduction you might guess that he's a professor. The wide glasses. The precise speech. The way of telling a story with an emphasis on details revealing a deep and hungry intellect. The obvious delight he takes in the sound of his own voice.
But despite the enormous power he wields as founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opens on Saturday, September 24, Bunch dons an inviting “aw, shucks” cloak to shave an edge off the authority that naturally comes with his title.
Bunch tends to pepper his statements with the flourish: “I’m not that smart.” Don’t be fooled. Listen carefully, and it becomes apparent that Bunch is actually a cunning strategist who demonstrates quite a bit of political acumen.
“One of his greatest attributes is his demeanor,” says Anthony Coles, chief executive officer of Yumanity Therapeutics, a Boston-based biotech company, who is a major donor to the museum. “He disarms people and that serves him well as he navigates some very complicated terrain.”
All of that and more was required to snag a spot on the National Mall steps from the White House, across from the Washington Monument, and with a clear sight line to several memorials and iconic Washington buildings.
Bunch, 63, had argued for the prime spot on the mall since he first took the job in 2005 but opposition was stiff. He was initially shuttled toward a plot in Anacostia, a largely black, relatively isolated area with a proud history as the onetime home to Frederick Douglass offset by stubbornly high rates of poverty and crime. He was encouraged to consider an obscure lot that sat atop an underground entrance to a major interstate freeway, a spot that would have required so many Herculean infrastructure changes that he would have made enemies out of every neighbor. He was also asked to check out one piece of land that he still has not been able to precisely locate, despite its appearance on old city maps. Again, he notes—with a Cheshire grin—that perhaps it’s because “he’s just not that smart.”
“I know where I wanted the museum to be but I couldn’t say that so I had to go through the process of analyzing each space,” says Bunch, ticking through possible concerns. “What is the visitor traffic? What’s the car traffic? Are there water issues? Are there historic issues?” Washington is a city where the transportation and architectural grids are still shaped by some of the city's original framers.
The 1912 McMillan Commission Plan that governed building and open spaces along the corridor between the Lincoln Memorial and Capitol Hill was a major obstacle and, though it was not clearly stated, Bunch says race may have also been a concern.
“You know I’m not smart enough to read the minds of everybody, but there’s no doubt in my mind that there was some concern that one, this was such a prime location,” Bunch says. “Should a museum, as some people said to me, that talked about things that are better left forgotten, you know, should that museum be on that spot?”
There were also very practical considerations. It’s a big building with an aggressive design on a tight five-acre plot of land that is nestled between two busy corridors that lead to and from interstate connections to downtown Washington, D.C. How would they get tourists and trucks in and out? Where would the loading dock sit? How could they build a structure with a significant part of the exhibit space underground when the water table near the Potomac River was so high?
"We tried to use all of these tough questions to come up with a smart design," says David Adjaye, the lead architect on the project.
Said another way, the museum evoked a “bring it on” strategy. “Let them ask all the difficult questions. Let them raise the issues so therefore we can make sure that, when we build the building, it’ll be right,” Bunch says.
Bunch had been arguing that a museum upholding the centrality of race in the American narrative needed to be in a central location on the mall. Essentially the front yard, not the side or back yard. In the end, Bunch says, it came down to a location that would entice donors to bring on the money.
“What really did it was that I’d made that argument about symbolism on a Friday, and I go meet Oprah on Saturday. So I was in Chicago talking to Oprah, and I said to her, ‘You know, I made this argument, and it didn’t do all that well, and she said, ‘Well, you know Lonnie,’— almost in an offhanded way—‘people like me will give more money if it’s on the mall, and less money if it’s off the mall,’” Bunch says. “So I came back and embellished it just a little bit, and I said, ‘Oprah said she’d give $20 million if it was on the mall but $1 million if it’s off the mall,’ and, ‘Congress, I may have to come back to you for more money.’” Bunch holds his hands and shrugs his shoulders in a “What’s a man to do?” gesture.
“They said, ‘Welcome to your space.’” To be clear, the conversation could not have possibly been that simple or that quick. But the point was made. The museum would be more financially viable if it was in a more visible location.
Bunch had to go back to Oprah Winfrey to thank her for her advice and to ask for a larger commitment that she had contemplated. It took some time, but eventually she did commit to that $20 million. The theater in the building carries her name.
Michele Norris hosted NPR’s All Things Considered for more than a decade. She is founding director of the Race Card Project and author of The Grace of Silence, a memoir examining hidden racial legacies. She wrote about the museum for National Geographic's October 2016 issue. Follow her on Twitter.