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Smithsonian Institution Names Lonnie Bunch III As Its New Secretary


The founding director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture has been selected to lead the entire Smithsonian Institution. Lonnie Bunch III will oversee 19 museums, nine research facilities and the National Zoo. He will be the first African American to hold the position since the Smithsonian was founded 173 years ago. NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: You can practically smell the history in the Smithsonian's 19th century castle. That's where Lonnie Bunch received a round of applause from board members, fellow museum directors, major funders and his mom.


LONNIE BUNCH III: OK, you're going to make a historian cry.

BLAIR: Lonnie Bunch has worked for the Smithsonian in various capacities for about 30 years, but his crowning achievement is opening the Smithsonian's African American Museum in 2016. Four and a half million visited in its first year. Its 40,000-piece collection includes Nat Turner's Bible and costumes from the Broadway show "The Wiz." David Rubenstein, chair of the Smithsonian's Board of Regents, says Bunch started with almost no money, no donors, no land and no artifacts.

DAVID RUBENSTEIN: And over a period of about 12 years or so, he put everything together. So it was a real tour de force. There were plenty of other people involved, but Lonnie was the general.

BLAIR: Lonnie Bunch was born and raised in Newark, N.J. His parents were schoolteachers. He's worked at two other Smithsonian museums - Air and Space and American History. He says he wants to make the institution more nimble, and he wants the public to think of it as more than a collection of art and artifacts.


BUNCH: I want it to be the kind of institution that helps us debate, that helps us discuss, that helps us understand, that helps us become better as a nation.

BLAIR: Bunch will also face budget challenges. Many of the Smithsonian's buildings are in desperate need of repair. He will replace David Skorton, a cardiologist who is leaving to head up the Association of American Medical Colleges. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.
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