At a ceremony held at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building Friday afternoon, Lonnie G. Bunch III was officially installed as the Smithsonian’s 14th secretary, the first African American leader in the institution’s 173-year history. Bunch, who has been acting secretary since June 16, is also the first historian and Smithsonian museum director to take the position.
Following remarks by Chief Justice John Roberts, David Rubenstein, Steve Case, and his predecessor, Secretary David Skorton, Bunch was presented with a ceremonial mid-19th-century brass key to the Smithsonian Castle, making his title official. The key was once used to open a large oak door to the Smithsonian Castle.
“While we should respect and revel in the past, we must never be trapped by our traditions,” Bunch said in front of a packed crowd that included Smithsonian staff, Mayor Muriel Bowser, and Bunch’s wife, Maria, whom he met in his first job at the Smithsonian. “We, the Smithsonian, will be a hub of learning and innovation, who bring together diverse voices to grapple with the key contemporary concerns.”
In his remarks, he told the story of a trip his family took in the 1960s from their home in New Jersey to visit relatives in the still-segregated South. “On the return, my family pulled into Washington and parked in front of the Smithsonian,” Bunch said. “Then my dad explained that I could visit the Smithsonian and not worry about being turned away because of race.”
Secretary Bunch was the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and has long been outspoken about politics, history, and race in America. In a September op-ed in the Washington Post, Bunch wrote, “Museums and other cultural institutions are indispensable tools in confronting difficult truths and breaking down invented pasts.”
As a leader, Secretary Bunch is well-respected within the Smithsonian for his bold approach to diversity.
“The Smithsonian staff are delighted because he is one of our own, as we say, because much of his career has been at the Smithsonian,” Access Smithsonian director Beth Zeibarth said in an interview with Washingtonian. “We know him, and he knows us. He puts a real emphasis on diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion.”
Bunch, a graduate of American University, first joined the Smithsonian in the 1970s as a historian at the National Air and Space Museum. He went on to be a curator, historian, and director at a number of museums and historical societies across the country, including the American History Museum, where he secured the iconic Greensboro Lunch Counter.
The ceremony was bookended by performances by DC-born singer Kenny Lattimore, whose rendition of the black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” left some audience members in tears.
David Skorton, the Smithsonian’s 13th secretary, said, “I’ve passed on many batons over the decades, but I’ve never had an easier one to pass on—you’re the genuine article. You will be the stand up secretary out of the 14. Consider the baton passed.”