Lonnie Bunch, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Discusses the Impact of COVID-19 and Racial Turmoil in America

Friday, August 7, 2020 - Lonnie Bunch III, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, discusses the impact of COVID-19 on the Smithsonian and other museums and talks about the current racial unrest in America.

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Lonnie Bunch III is a historian and curator who now serves as the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. He was previously the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Today, he will discuss the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Smithsonian Institution and the current racial turmoil in America.

Secretary Bunch is hopeful that this could be a moment of possibility, not unlike other times of unrest that have pushed the country forward. For perhaps the first time, a diverse array of people are acknowledging racism as a universal problem, not just a black problem. But as a historian, he is worried about the effort to completely disregard the contributions of consequential figures like President Woodrow Wilson, who also embraced racist beliefs in their time.

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In this Episode

Read the transcript of this episode below of jump to a section using the links.

Opening Remarks

Lonnie Bunch III:
it's so amazing to me that a bad trip turned into a great friendship. So I really appreciate that very much. And I very much appreciate having a chance to chat with you because I think that your notion of country over party is so important. Especially at this time. I have to tell you. As Secretary of the Smithsonian, I didn't know what I was signing up on. The fact that we've got this almost triple threat... a horrible economy, a virus that is killing, and then impact of the murder of George Floyd... has really led me to think very hard and carefully about what we can do and where we are as a country. On the one hand, as a historian, it's clear to me that this is a moment of possibility. There have been moments throughout our history where opportunities and tragedy have come together and propelled the country forward. I think so much about 1954, 1955. The Brown v. Board of Education decision and then, a year later, the murder of Emmett Till from Chicago. Emmett Till's death reinvigorated the civil rights movement and Brown v. Board gave them a north star to shoot towards.

In some ways, the question is is this a moment that will push our country forward? And I think that, from where I sit, what's crucial to me is that I do believe, for the first time, really, in 20, 30 years, that we've got people who are willing to cross party lines, cross racial lines, to look at what's possible in this nation. As a historian, I am hopeful. Not sure I'm optimistic, but I'm hopeful. I'm hopeful because I come from a community that believed in an America when an America didn't believe in them. I come from a community who believed that there could be a world where there was no slavery, who believed there could be a world where there was no legal segregation, when the rest of the world said it's hard to make those changes. So, for me, coming out of that community, coming out of being a historian, I am always hopeful that change is possible. But, again, I've been hopeful many other times in the past and it's not always lived up to the fruition that I thought.

How can we make it different this time?

Question:
How can we make it different this time?

Lonnie Bunch III:
Well, I think you're seeing some things that give us hope. First of all, you're seeing a diverse array of people saying this is all of our problem, not just a Black problem. In most of the other movements historically, it's been overwhelmingly African American. With great allies, but it's really been sort of owned by the African American community. There's something powerful about seeing diverse people... not just in the United States, but around the world... saying that this is a moment that we have to do something different. I think that gives me great hope. What also gives me hope is that I'm seeing people who never stood up before to say change was needed. Police officers. Some police chiefs. You see corporate America saying more than just let me give a little money. Rather, corporate America is being challenged by its staff to say what are you doing to help the country, but also, how are you modeling the kind of behavior within your corporation? I think that's leading to real change, not just checkbook change.

I see that as being crucially important. I also see... The real issue is whether or not everybody who is concerned, who is protesting, will actually go out and vote. Will actually say, "I want to make sure my voice matters in ways that are concrete." I spent a lot of time over the last couple of weeks down with different crowds at different parts of the protests in Washington, DC and what's interesting is that, overwhelmingly, a lot of people say, "I'm not going to vote. Neither party gives me what I believe." And I've always argued that not voting is really an insult to all those who fought for, who died, who struggled, to ensure that the people have the right to vote. I'm at that point where I see things that are possible. Candidly, one of the biggest surprises... and I guess it's a little thing, but it's a big surprise to me. The fact that they're actually going to do away with Aunt Jemima, which has driven me crazy for 100 years. Going to grocery stores and seeing Aunt Jemima.

All of that suggests to me that this might be a moment, but let me tell you the other side. The other side that concerns me is that, if you look in the 1960s when there was profound change and also there was unrest in the streets, what you see happening is that you see the country turn more to law and order rather than racial justice. That law and order led to larger numbers of mass incarceration and the like and it turned the attention. At a moment when there was energy and commitment to change, it turned that away. So I just worry a little bit that we might use the same language. Pay more attention to looters than to the people that are actually trying to affect positive change. I worry a great deal about does that short circuit what could be a moment of great transformation?

Attempts at whitewashing?

Question:
You refer to Aunt Jemima, which leads to a broader question. There's obviously been a movement afoot, whether it's tearing down statues, changing names of institutions... and we heard last weekend, Princeton has decided to change the name of one of its colleges and also change the name of its public policy center. The Woodrow Wilson name will no longer be there. Are those affirmative changes or are those changes that maybe are an attempt to whitewash history?

Lonnie Bunch III:
I guess I'd look at it a little different. One of the things I think is crucially important is to have an honest history, a complete history, and often, many of the Confederate statues are less, for example, about the Confederacy and more about attempts to maintain segregation or to celebrate white supremacy in the early 20th century. For me, it's always about... These monuments, though they're in stone and metal, I think were never meant to be permanent. I think it's important to think about how do you prune these monuments so that you can make the changes so that there's room for new people that you want to celebrate? I think that the question really is are you erasing history? I believe that, with the Confederate monuments for example, you're correcting history. You're not erasing history. Because the Confederate monuments remind us that the South lost the Civil War, but they won the peace.

Lonnie Bunch III:
And so I think what's important to me is that I would never want to see all of these sculptures torn down, statues destroyed. I've worked with the mayor of New Orleans, the mayor of Baltimore, to suggest that... at least with Confederate statutes... that if you take some down, they ought to be placed in a park. They ought to be placed in a warehouse. Sometimes in a museum so they can be contextualized. Because what's most important about this moment is not the tearing down of statues, but the opening of conversation about actual history. About the difference between memory and history. Between celebrating a heritage and celebrating a country history. For me, it's crucially important that we have those conversations and that we try to preserve some of these so that we can interpret them. I think that, in some ways, there are many places around the world that are models for us. You look at what they're doing in Budapest. In parts of India. They've pulled together statues that reflect a certain time in their history, brought them together, and interpret them in a park. So people understand that they're shaped by that history, but they understand better what it really means.

Lonnie Bunch III:
I think the broader question, then, is how deep does this go? Is this something that goes all the way down to presidential names? For me, Wilson is both a great international visionary president, but he's also somebody who basically re-segregated the federal government. For me, there's questions about why do you celebrate Woodrow Wilson? I think that it's not enough just simply to say I will use the name of Woodrow Wilson and then we'll talk about how race plays out. I've suggested however to the Wilson Center that's in Washington DC that they might think about... If they don't change their name, they might think about just making a major part of their work looking at how race and government interacted and interplayed throughout the years. I'm torn because I don't want to erase history, but I sure would like people to understand that, when you look at Thomas Jefferson, this is a man who wrote one of the most important documents in America, but he wrote that through the lens of slavery. You can't understand Jefferson's notion of liberty and freedom without understanding his notions of slavery. I'm never saying erase Jefferson. I'm just saying help us understand the fullness of Jefferson.

Lonnie Bunch III:
In some ways, the real challenge of this is that good history helps people embrace ambiguity. Helps people understand that it's complex. It's nuanced. That there are shades of gray and that there aren't simple answers to complex questions. Which often goes against an American mindset. For me, if we could use this moment to help people think about nuance, think about complexity, think about ambiguity, then I think we're making a major contribution to this country in ways we cannot yet imagine.

How can the Smithsonian play an important role in what you're talking about?

Alan:
How can the Smithsonian play an important role in what you're talking about?

Lonnie Bunch III:
I think, in many ways, this is the moment for the Smithsonian to show how it's a value to the American public. And that's in several ways. One the one hand, when we talk about the virus itself, the pandemic, so much of the research about how animal viruses transfer to human was done by the Smithsonian. So to make that information more available, but also, the Smithsonian is a place that people trust. One of the things that I think you know better than I is people talk to people who believe the same things they do. That they're in these bubbles. But the Smithsonian can bring people who cross different political and ethnic lines together, whether it's virtually or actually, to grapple with these issues. I've created this initiative called Race, Community, and Our Shared Future, which really looks at how the Smithsonian can use its resources, its expertise, to create virtual town halls around the country so people will feel comfortable grappling with these issues, how we can help the Smithsonian share its educational content around issues of race. I really think that the Smithsonian has to do what it's done for 175 years, but maybe better. And that is to be a place that helps a country find understanding, insight, nuance, complexity, and maybe just maybe, a little hope.

Future of Museums

Chris:
I'm a trustee in a few museums including the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley... and you touched on it a little bit before, but I'd like to ask you to speak a little more about what you think the future of museums looks like. Particularly when they may not involve walking into a building. This situation forces us all to think about that as all of our museums are closed as we speak.

Lonnie Bunch III:
Very good question. What I've done is I put together a group, both of internal and external people, to help me think about what's the new normal for museums? The reality is that only a foolish museum thinks they're going to go back to exactly the way it was. I think that if you look at the way audiences are reacting... Our numbers tell us, for example, that when I reopen parts of the Smithsonian, 25% of our visitors will come back right away. Another 25% will come back in six to eight weeks if there's no spike. But 50% won't show up until there's a vaccine. So it really means we have to think of new models, new revenue streams, and I think it's also important to realize that, for the first time, I would argue more Americans are comfortable getting content digitally than ever before. And so, therefore, really making sure not that we see the digital as ancillary but as integrated importance to what we do. I think that... I look at the Smithsonian. We get 30 million visitors a year, but compared to the number of people in this country, that's pretty small.

Part of what I think museums have to do is... One, they're going to have to find and think about new ways of understanding their audience. Because museums talk about that, but I don't think they really do. Especially now in light of this pandemic. Two, it's the digital. It's going to be crucially important. Three, I think it's really important for museums to think of what's the ideas that demonstrate that they're helping a community, a country, be better. Because people with resources have all lost money and people are looking for the big ideas. Show me that what you're doing traditionally is good, but show me what you're doing more. So I think this is an exciting time for museums. Especially if museums recognize that they've got a greater responsibility than just doing good exhibitions and collecting. They've got a responsibility to figure out how do they... through their education materials, through their expertise... how do they help a city, a region, a country, be made better? I agree that this is a... Good museums are thinking about this as a way to reimagine themselves. The mediocre museums are thinking about how do I get through the next year?

Reparations

Question:
Bob Johnson was on here a week or 10 days ago from BET and he's been making the case for reparations. HR 40 has been around for a number of years under Congressman John Conyers' sponsorship and Congresswoman Jackson Lee more recently. Just from a process perspective, your thoughts on how do we have that conversation, that discussion, that dialogue. What kinds of... Can the Smithsonian, other institutions, play a role in that? From a education and learning perspective, but also shining a light. How do we just take on that whole set of issues? Your thoughts.

Lonnie Bunch III:
Well, you're now going to get a response from me that Bob Johnson doesn't like. My notion is that, for me, reparations are really not about giving resources to individual people or families. For me, it's saying how do we put resources to enrich and make educational opportunities for people of color more available? I look at the fact that I got through graduate school through special opportunity programs that are no longer there. I worry so much about the window being closed. So for me, reparations is really about committing resources to ensuring the educational opportunities for all of our children. I think that the Smithsonian can be... and other cultural institutions... can play a role in helping people understand why there's this need to put resources in this area.

I think that it's always interesting for me when I realize that people don't realize how all of us are shaped by slavery regardless of where we're from, regardless of when our families came here. When you look at the... In 1860, just before the war began, there was more money invested in slaves than in railroad, commerce, and business combined. It's the economic engine of a nation. And so, in some ways, we've all benefited from that unpaid labor. For me, paying that back by making sure the descendants of those enslaved people have the opportunities to get out of the inner cities, have an opportunity to get educated... that, to me, is what reparations are all about.

Question:
Thank you. Would you please share your thoughts on how we can keep the momentum for racial justice going and avoid what happened in the past? Having it overtaken by cries for law and order?

Lonnie Bunch III:
I think you put your finger on what is the biggest challenge we face. On the one hand, though, what's different now is not so much young people out in the streets... because that's not sustainable. At a certain point, you're just not in the street. But what is sustainable is the conversations that are going in foundations and corporations. How to make sure that the conversation continues. What I think is clear is that there's a fundamental question of I would argue that we need to have political leadership at all levels... local, state, national... that is really recognizing that this is their agenda. That this is the moment to do that. I think that begins to keep it doing. I think what you're going to see is what happened during the late 1960s. You're going to see more interest in African American history. You're going to see more documentaries, more movies... and I think that's all for the good, but the key is that the goal in the late 1960s was can we understand people who are different from us? The goal today ought to be can we use that understanding to transform a system? Can we use that understanding to ensure that we're talking about fairness? Just not books that are going to put on shelves that people won't read five years from now?

Respect for History

Question:
I'm with you. I'm a techno 19th century person. I'm unmuted. I was saying I'm quite moved by a lot of what you're saying and your thoughtfulness. Many decades ago, when I was Nelson Rockefeller's White House fellow, he was a trustee of the Smithsonian and he felt he was very important that I accompany him to the meetings to learn about this remarkable aspect of Washington. It's always stayed with me. I'm on the board of the history center here in San Diego and so much of what you're saying is valuable in terms of we're taking the stories out to the communities and we're taking them to the communities of color, black and brown, here. My concern... and wanted to hear more about your thoughts on the rush to eradicate or gloss over or change history. Men and women, we're all flawed. Washington, Jefferson, Wilson, all flawed. But what they contributed to make this moment possible. How do we do that, really, Lonnie, and... Again, not to put fine a point on the role of the Smithsonian, but you also... You particularly as an individual and the Smithsonian have a special place and a special opportunity to help lead that call about balancing the education, especially with the children.

Lonnie Bunch III:
I think you've put your finger on what I think my job is at the Smithsonian, which is, at this moment, to help this country where the Smithsonian can help it the best and I think sometimes around these issues of race are really crucially important. But also, as I talk to historians around the country, this is the moment for historians to make sure America understands a complex history. Understands itself in a way. I guess it's kind of what I was saying earlier. If we can help people not simply look for simple answers, then we can understand that you can celebrate a brilliant man like Woodrow Wilson but you can also the point to and better understand the flaws. And that, in some ways, what you really want to see is you want the country to see that it's always been a work in progress and that there is this opportunity to always challenge to make it better.

What I've been struck by around these discussions around the monuments here in Washington... the big discussion now is around an Abraham Lincoln statue. There is an amazing statue that was dedicated by Frederick Douglass a couple years after Lincoln was killed and it's a statue of Lincoln basically freeing the slaves. Lincoln standing over a slave that's on its knees, Lincoln's hand is over his head, and basically his hand is breaking the chain. Saying, "Lincoln set the slaves free." Well, that's the way we were all taught, but it's a much more complicated story. So I've been arguing to the mayor and others, please don't take that down. Let us use that as a teaching moment. To talk a little bit about trying to understand that Lincoln had these amazing... He was a person of his era, but he also was a person ahead of his time. That doesn't mean he was a person that should've been today, but we tend to use today's judgment looking back. I'm trying very hard to help historians help the public just understand that the key to our success, I think, is understanding complexity.

Issue Fatigue

Question:
I'm down here in the deep South, in the state of Mississippi, where remarkably this weekend they took the flag down. There's really two states in this state. Because I ran for political office here, I got intimately familiar with it. In the Black community, clearly the issues that are coming up now resonate completely, but in the white community, what I worry about is what I'll call deal fatigue. Really, we are all overwhelmed with economic burdens and health burdens and we're all locked in our homes and, yet, at the same time, there's massive momentum in favor of... Like I said, it resulted in the flag. I never would've bet that come down. The number one thing I got asked at every radio station I went on that was a white conservative one was, "Mr. Sherman, what are we going to do about the flag?" So how do we avoid, at this point in time... get a little bit of dosing instead of like a sponge. There's so much water being poured on the sponge that there are people here who say, "I know, but I'm freaking peddling for my life economically or health wise or whatever."

Lonnie Bunch III:
Well, I think that part of it is we've got to be clear in what we're trying to accomplish. Right now, it looks like we're trying to change the world. Everything racial. We're trying to figure out new ways to live a virtual world, virtual life, and I think the challenge is for us to recognize what is it that we really want to see happening. What's possible? So therefore we can point people's attention to that. Because I think, right now, what's going to happen in my mind is that, a year from now, we will have some very important successes, but we're also going to have fatigue. The question in my mind is, when you're fatigued, the most important thing is to know what your goal is. And, right now, we don't have a clear goal of what we're trying to accomplish. It's not enough to say we need to deal with the police force. And when you say systematic racism, what does that really mean? That's such a large area. So I think the challenge is to really find leadership that's going to make clear here's what we can accomplish and that'll continue to get people to feel that they can focus their attention in that way.

College Athletics

Richard:
My question actually started out also related to what happened in Mississippi. What was interesting to me about that was it seemed that it was college athletics that was a driving force and athletes. Athletes are saying... Well, the NCAA and SEC saying, "No more events in Mississippi as long as that's there." Some athletes saying, "I'm not going to stay at the school." How broad do you think the ability of athletes... not just as their role model role, but in their role as people who play an important role in particular cities and locations... can have in keeping the progress going?

Lonnie Bunch III:
I think that athletes traditionally have not been very engaged in the fight for fairness, whatever the issue is. There are obviously... There are exceptions, right? Jesse Owens, the Black Power Olympics, et cetera. But I think that what you're finding now is more athletes getting their voice. Finding their voice. What I find fascinating is... I was on some radio show and they basically asked shouldn't a professional athlete just play ball? Dribble and shut up kind of thing. My notion is you're an athlete for only a short period of your life, but you're an American forever. As such, you have an obligation to speak help. To help change the country. So I think that athletes is really crucially important to helping to transform the society because they have this great platform. I think about my years in college when one of the great changes of University of Alabama was when they played USC and Sam Cunningham ran all over them. Suddenly, Bear Bryant said, "I need more Black players." Athletics has really been part of the transformation. I don't expect all athletes to speak up, but I'm impressed to see some of the ones that are most visible taking a risk to say let us change this nation.

Dealing with Statues

Bryan:
I was really struck by a comment you made earlier in the talk and a couple times throughout, so this is piling on theme that we've been discussing here, about looking at statues and considering them as teachable moments or opportunities to drive nuanced conversation. I live just outside of Washington DC in northern Virginia, but I went to school not two hours south in Richmond. Literally the center of the... the capital of the Confederacy. You have Monument Avenue with Confederate generals up and down the street. You have Hollywood Cemetery, which is basically an altar to Jefferson Davis. The White House of the Confederacy there. A location like that, that is just steeped in this history that is so rife with tension and conflict and pain today... Can you talk a little bit about... A statue here, a statue there is one thing. A city like Richmond... Somebody mentioned previously the state of Mississippi. Some of these places that it's so entwined with that location. How do you see an opportunity to use that to drive conversation, understanding the pain that it causes but, really, the opportunity that it gives us to look with eyes wide open and deal with that past that we have and turn it into a better future?

Lonnie Bunch III:
I think you've put your finger on the exact issue is suddenly I hear Governor Northam talk about how do we use that Confederate street, whatever it's called... Monument Avenue... How do we use that as a moment to understand our history? To understand... Because there are many people who don't understand the pain that those statues cause. Too many people in the community. I see this as, really, a great opportunity. I'm impressed that Richmond is spending a lot of effort trying to recapture its African American past. There's a lot of work that's being down in Shockoe Bottom, I think it's called. I think all of that is for the good. What was crucial was to get political leadership to say, "This is an important part of who we are and let's address that." I think that even if you tore down every statue in Richmond, Richmond would still be a southern city shaped by the Confederacy. So unless you then use those statues as a way to find a new Richmond, then you can be able to make the changes that I think we want. Otherwise Richmond will... What you'll do is... By simply pulling down the statues, what you'll do is harden the lines. And I think if we can figure out ways to use those... The Richmond Historical Society, even the Museum of the Confederacy... really helping to stimulate conversations, then I think you can make a transformative moment in a place like Richmond.

How to Make the Smithsonian Reach More People

Question:
Is this an opportunity to take the Smithsonian, where the people on this call all seem to love it, including myself, but bringing it out to the rest of the country and, in particular, I see... My wife's a schoolteacher for a grammar school... and we really hope everyone goes back to school in September, but I'm not sure... and they're constantly searching for content. Can we try and make some lemonade out of these lemons here?

Lonnie Bunch III:
I've used this to transform the Smithsonian already. Almost all of our educational content is now online. I created something called Smithsonian Cares, which was dedicated to K-12 education, to make sure our science, our history, our culture is available. I've asked all the experts at the Smithsonian to do a five-minute video for elementary school on black holes. A five-minute video on the Civil War. So I think that's really part of what we're going to be doing in the future. That's going to be center to what we do. I think the other piece of it is to recognize that what we have to do is to really do something that's hard for the Smithsonian and that is to act like one Smithsonian. It's easy for individual museums to throw things out, but to really say, are there some portals that will allow you as a teacher to come into the Smithsonian?

One of the things we've created is something with a horrible name called The Learning Lab. What it is is we've taken three million Smithsonian artifacts and we've allowed teachers to come in and create lesson plans based on them. You can type Abraham Lincoln and learn every artifact the Smithsonian has about Lincoln. You can take it. It's all on open access to what you want. What happens then is these teachers then take their lesson plans and share it with other teachers. It's the ripple effect, so we don't have to do it all. I expect us to be much more... I've tried to explain to my colleagues. We are the world's greatest museum complex. We're a pretty good university when it comes to scholarship. What we really are a place of information and communication. And if we look at it through that lens, then it frees us up to try new techniques and to do new things. So you've put your finger on where I want the Smithsonian to go.

Mixing Cultures and Connections

Mike:
We're a financial center here [inaudible 00:38:00] significance and we're very good at transferring financial capital. The thing that we're having a great deal of difficulty with is transferring social capital, which is to me is much more effective at solving some of these issues. I wonder if there's any magic that you've run across on how we in the Caucasian community can find ways to connect with other parts of our society that we typically don't run into for purposes of transferring social capital. Thanks.

Lonnie Bunch III:
One of the things that strikes me in Charlotte, North Carolina is Bryan Moynihan of Bank of America. Bryan has said to me in no uncertain terms that this is a conversation that we can't let by and that he's really reached out to me and others to say, who are collaborators that we don't normally work with that can allow us to affect change? And so I've been really impressed as I've been asked to give people lists of who are folks? Where are people and the universities and cultural institutions and the educational institutions that are really ready to partner with the corporate community to begin to make those changes? And so I think they're out there. There are a lot of conversations I'm having with people on who some of those resources are. I just think that the key for me is to recognize that you've got... I cannot remember the name. In Charlotte, there is a large African American museum whose name has left me and they're okay, but their connections in the community are deep and that would be somebody I would talk to. I'll remember their name at some point.

Working on Bipartisanship

Question:
I know that during the process of the funding and the conceptualization of the museum, you worked with people on both sides of the divide. Any pearls of wisdom as to how you brought people together and especially over difficult financial decisions and the politics involved in that?

Lonnie Bunch III:
Well, first of all, I learned so much about politics in Chicago, so that helped. But then what I also thought was... I knew that when I walked into a member of Congress' office, they saw this face and said Democrat. I knew that. So what I said is how do I... Who are the people that can bring me into Congress that will show that I'm really trying to craft something that is not a Democratic initiative or a Republican initiative but a quintessential American initiative. And so I actually sat down and had Senator Durbin and Congressman John Carter, a Republican and a Democrat, to open doors for me and allow me to go in and meet with people. It helped that I was able to get Senator Sam Brownback, who is very different than me politically, and that opened doors because he cared about what the museum was doing. So partly it was... As I said, every time Congress was in session, I spent two days on the Hill, not asking for a thing other than taking hands and saying, "Here's why this is a story all America must care for." Ultimately, we were able to get complete bipartisan support and raise a lot of money as well.

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