As another week of quarantine and social distancing goes by, Sinéad catches up with historian and Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute, Lonnie Bunch from his home in Washington, D.C. The two talk about the importance of history in shaping our identity, Lonnie’s experience as the director of the Museum of African American History and Culture, and the parts of his childhood that shaped his understanding of racism, and led him to cherish history and storytelling. (Note, strong language is used by Lonnie to describe racist experiences.)
[00:54] Sinéad Burke: Welcome to this week’s episode of As Me with Sinéad. As you might have guessed, I am still at home in the same way as I imagine you are. I am five weeks in one place. I update you on this every week and I imagine it’s not that interesting, but it both feels like yesterday. It feels like a decade ago. I had a really tough week last week. I don’t know why. And I can’t even pinpoint one exact moment. But just at the end of last week, I lost it. I was so upset. I couldn’t even articulate why I was so sad and then felt this sense of guilt because so much of my experience in this moment is incredibly privileged. I’m surrounded by loved ones. I am safe. I am healthy. I am not infected. I have a roof over my head. I have enough activities from garden to knitting to work to feeling occupied. And yet I just felt so low. I’ve been trying to figure out ways to manage it, and to do and feel better. And I’m doing online counseling. That’s helping. It’s such a great support system to have somebody professional to talk to who can question those thoughts in your head. I’m trying to be kind to myself, which is easier said than done. But in many ways, the one solution that I have found to this kind of internalized trauma is leaving my house every morning when it’s still quiet, when people are still asleep. Going for a walk and trusting one of the people I love most in my life, a very dear friend, with the inner workings of my mind, which are often embarrassing and ill-considered and ill-thought through. But actually being able to narrate them to somebody else and to have that support has been huge. Because whilst I am a person that — and this podcast proves it — finds it not necessarily easy, but I’m comfortable with creating space for others to share their vulnerabilities and to take them on.
[02:58] Sinéad Burke: I think because I’m an advocate and I share so much a part of my life with the world, that the parts that I don’t share, the parts of when I’m sad and fearful and nervous and irate and feeling ill-equipped and really just vulnerable in other ways, that aren’t about my disability but are just about Sinéad. I find it really difficult to give them to others, to talk about them. I find that vulnerability really hard, so I’ve been trying to get better at that. And really I share this because I think we’ve got to the point in this pandemic where we are trying to understand, and have a grip with what we’re experiencing, and we’re trying to become OK with it. The reality is there are moments when we’re just not going to be OK. So I hope you’re finding ways to manage, and to silence a voice in your head, and to be good to yourself and to obliterate yourself from the guilt. Or obliterate the guilt, actually, maybe more importantly. This week I am talking to the mastermind behind the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, Lonnie Bunch III. He is one of the people I admire most. And we talked about how he’s using his current role as secretary of the Smithsonian Institute to ensure museums remain an important avenue for telling stories even in a digital age.
[04:19] Lonnie Bunch III: It is, first of all, incumbent upon cultural institutions to realize that what their real job is, it is not to preserve collections. It’s not to shape the scholarship. Their real job is to look at their community, however you want to define it, and shape the museum to fit that community.
[04:41] Sinéad Burke: What’s on my mind this week is the importance of boundaries. Can you tell that I’ve been doing some therapy? I’m not sure. I took two days off for Easter, Easter Sunday and Easter Monday, which sounds obvious, but I am a person who finds it really difficult to switch off. You’re learning all about my issues as regards to control this week. But actually just sitting with family and loved ones and taking time to call them and being present in that moment is something that I am continuing to practice and learn. What’s on my mind this week is making that not just something I do around holidays. It’s not just something I do for two days. Because in this pandemic I am so invested in being productive, listening to three audiobooks at once, which I’m currently doing, and is completely bananas. And actually just taking time to take a deep breath and to go for a walk and to marvel at spring, which is better and less trite than it sounds. That’s what’s occupying my head this week. Are you ready for this week’s show? Let’s go!
[05:51] Sinéad Burke: This week’s episode of As Me with Sinéad will be one of the 45 that will mean the most to me. There are a few people who you meet in this world who change you instantaneously from the moment you come across them. This week’s guest did that to me without even knowing about it. I was listening to a podcast, Still Processing, from The New York Times. And Jenna Wortham, the amazing writer, was talking about this museum that she had just been to for the very first time. It was in D.C. It was called the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. The way in which she described the power of storytelling and design and the importance of human stories to change hearts, minds and legislation, but also to remind us of our past, so that we can reshape the future, was incredible. A couple of months later, I was going to the World Economic Forum in Davos. And one thing that you may not know is that if you’re a delegate in that room, you get access to an app where everybody who’s gonna be there, you can contact them, maybe reach out, as they say on the Internet. And one of the people who stopped me in my tracks when I was looking through this app was Lonnie Bunch. He was the director, and in many ways, the brains behind this museum. As you can imagine, if you know me in any way, I pestered him enormously to see if he would spend time with me at Davos, or even if I could just say hello. And he did more than that. He gave me so much of his time that I am forever changed by his kindness and his education. And over the course of the past few years, I have been very privileged to be able to call him a mentor. And to get to sit across from him on Zoom in the middle of a pandemic — which I think is the only time in which Lonnie Bunch is not busy. But his definition of busy and my definition of busy are very different, so I don’t believe him — is genuinely one of the true privileges of my life thus far. This week’s guest is Lonnie Bunch. Lonnie, thank you so much for being on this podcast.
[08:03] Lonnie Bunch III: Boy, I didn’t know who you were talking about. What a nice guy that guy is. But I am so pleased to be with you. I think one of the joys for me was going to Davos, which was not high on my list, but realizing I got to meet you, suddenly Davos is much more important to me than I ever thought it would be.
[08:20] Sinéad Burke: Well, that is possibly the nicest compliment that I have ever received. And I hope the World Economic Forum are listening and invite us both back for the rest of our lives that we can just be the facilitators and the chairs. Many people know you as many different things. You’ve had an incredible array of careers. But how do you describe yourself personally and professionally?
[08:43] Lonnie Bunch III: I am a historian. I am somebody who believes passionately in the power of the past. I believe that history really gives us the contextualization and, candidly, the tools or the weapons to change the world. I think in many ways for me, I am somebody who believes that my job is to fight the good fight. Growing up in my family, my parents, who were both teachers, used to always talk about if you benefit alone, then you really haven’t benefitted. The bottom line is that you are there to be of service. And everybody has a different tool. Mine was history, and then mine was museums. So how do I define myself? I’m a guy from a small town in New Jersey who loves the past and who wants to demand a better future.
[09:36] Sinéad Burke: If that’s not the title of your autobiography, I’m gonna be really disappointed. When did you first know that history was important?
[09:50] Lonnie Bunch III: My grandfather died the day before I turned five. So I was four years old, and he was reading to me. And one of the books he read had pictures of school-aged children. I don’t remember what color they were. They were school-aged kids. And as I’m looking at the picture, he said, you know, this picture was taken 100 years ago. More than likely, every one of these children are gone. And when you’re 4 years old, people who look like you who are gone — I was really — I was scared. I didn’t know what to do. And then he said words I’ve never forgotten. He said, “isn’t it a shame people could live their lives, die, and all it says underneath is unknown or anonymous?” And that really got to me. And I thought, I want to know how people live their lives. I want to know whether life’s fair, that people loved them, what struggles did they have? And I got so interested in understanding people that the way to do it was through history. And so from the time I can remember, I’ve always been fascinated with the past, fascinated with the stories of the past, but not just as entertainment. As really both inspiration and as guideposts to help me live my life.
[11:04] Lonnie Bunch III: The other part of it was, however, I grew up in a town where there are very few black people. And in my school, my elementary school, I was the only black kid. And so there were a lot of times that I had fights, that there were a lot of racial epithets, and there were people that treated me wonderfully, and people that treated me horribly. I remember like it was yesterday, I was playing ball in somebody’s backyard, and the mother came out and she had glasses of Kool-Aid to give everybody. And then she saw me and said, “you drink out of the hose.” And I never forgot that hurt. And so I realize that maybe history would help me understand why some people hated and why some people didn’t. And so history began as a personal way for me to heal and to understand, and hopefully became a way for me to think, how can I help a country? How can I help the world find reconciliation, peace and healing through the past? So that’s how I became a historian.
[12:07] Sinéad Burke: That incident with the hose, I’m horrified, but so sadly not surprised. What age were you at the time? And did you have any real sense of what was actually happening?
[12:21] Lonnie Bunch III: I was probably 8, 9 or 10, and I knew exactly what was happening. It had happened from the very first day I had walked out. I mean, even my grandparents who used to tell me that you’re going to face prejudice and here’s how you handle it. My grandmother was this amazing lady who started out life as a sharecropper and ended up life as this grand dame. Nobody messed with her. And so she used to tell me, “you have to behave in certain ways. And whatever you do, don’t get into fights.” Because the stereotype was that blacks were ruffians, and they would fight. And she’d say, “never fight unless somebody called you a ‘nigger.’ And if they called you a ‘nigger,’ you better fight everybody. And so that’s how I grew up, with this sense of moving forward and fighting for the good fight.
[13:08] Sinéad Burke: I think that idea of you always knew, and you were absolutely aware of the reality is interesting. And as a white woman, I have no comparison for that story. But as a little person, I knew from the earliest of ages the difference between people’s curiosity and people’s maliciousness. And if people were looking at me or pointing at me or staring at me, I would say to friends, even childhood friends, I would kind of say, gosh, they are acting funny. And my friends would think, no they’re not, it’s all in your head. You’re being oversensitive. And I could feel it in my bones. I was so used to how their body language would change when they look at me, or quietly nudging their friend and giving them a raised eyebrow, going “look over there.” But it’s hard. I mean, it becomes a part of you, it shapes you, and exactly as you said, it molds your interest in who you become.
[14:01] Lonnie Bunch III: Well, what it does is anybody who’s been an outsider knows what that feels like. Knows what the stares are, the whispers. Knows about what it’s like to be left out of gatherings. But what it also does, though, is it makes you care about every other outsider. It makes you want to fight for fairness from every place you work, every place you play, every place you visit. So for me, it has been the overriding sense of my life to say, what can I do to make sure people find fairness? That people have a chance to not feel that pain that you feel when you’re an outsider? And it starts from when you’re a child and it goes to this day. I’ll go places and sometimes people — I know what they’re saying, they’re pointing at me. Sometimes it’s because they recognize me. But other times it’s like, what’s this black guy doing here? And so I know that. And it makes you, as your friend said, sometimes it does make you sensitive. What I say what it does is make you perceptive. It makes you understand when to struggle and when to smile.
[15:12] Sinéad Burke: And that idea of sensitivity is so interesting because people will often compliment me for being empathetic, but will often query or be concerned at my level of sensitivity. And my argument is you can’t be one without the other. I need my sensitivity in order to be empathetic to others. But yet, if something hurts my feelings, then you’re probably going to have to hear about it, too.
[17:56] Sinéad Burke: I have a selfish question. Were you good at history in school?
[18:01] Lonnie Bunch III: I was probably OK. And then at my last year of high school, I had one of those great teachers who it wasn’t what she taught, it was that she took time to answer my questions. I would go up after class and say, help me understand the American Revolution. And, you know, and so it stimulated my love of history. And then from that point on, I don’t think I ever saw anything less than the highest grade ever in history.
[18:28] Sinéad Burke: I did really poorly in history in school, and I’m not sure why. I think some of it was because I, in my head, was so focused on dates and times and facts that actually I saw it as a mathematical subject rather than one that is in the humanities. And I think if a teacher had taken the time to tell me, “this is about people and this is about human stories,” I would have been the best student because that is what drives me. The ability for human story to change the world is everything I believe in. But because I saw it as something computational, I had this cognitive dissonance that I just thought, this isn’t for me. I’m gonna stick with the languages. I’m gonna stick with the arts. And actually, it’s the exact same thing.
[19:20] Lonnie Bunch III: Yep. I mean, for me, it was always about the people.
[19:24] Sinéad Burke: I’m intrigued when somebody asked you when you were a kid, or when you were in high school, what you were gonna do or be when you were older, did you say historian?
[19:32] Lonnie Bunch III: No, because I didn’t know what that was. Because I was the son of two teachers, my parents were like, you need to do something better than being a teacher, which I still think is the best thing you could be. But for them, you know, they wanted something more. And so I thought, all right, I’ll be a lawyer. That’s what I’m supposed to do. And yet I always loved history with so much. And I thought, well, should I go to law school? I’ll never forget my last year in university, I actually sat in some law school classes because I thought I don’t really want to go to law school, but maybe if I sit in, I’ll find it fascinating. And I hated it! I said I’d rather be a historian. I’ll never forget my mother said, “well, you do what you love, but remember, you’re gonna be broke.” I said, “that’s OK, I can always come home.” She said, “not always.”
[20:18] Sinéad Burke: I love that idea that your parents gave you the freedom to do what it was that you most desired. Because I think so many children don’t have that. You know, they are conditioned to believe that what you are passionate about is not as valid as the amount in which you can earn because you need to pay rent.
[20:36] Lonnie Bunch III: And I think my parents were, you know — it was really important as a young black person, their notion was they had to find this right tension between telling you the realities of the world, which you’re gonna face, but do it in such a way that you still had dreams. That you still believed you can acquire and achieve things. Although I still remember the line, they, you know, beat it into my head that you’ve got to be twice as good if you’re black to get half as far. And I remember that work. I realized that you got to work at it, that it doesn’t come easy, but that the other side of it is you get to do something where you can control your destiny a little bit more. And in my family, being able to help, and being able to control your destiny were two of the most important things that shaped me.
[21:25] Sinéad Burke: What have been the moments that have changed you?
[21:31] Lonnie Bunch III: Well, I think the moment that taught me that life wasn’t fair was really a moment where I was simply walking up a hill to the school and somebody came out of their house and said, “what are you doing here? You can’t live near here. There are no black people near here.” And I said, “I live four blocks away.” And they said, “no, you can’t.” And they called the police and the police came. I’m 12, maybe 13. And they threatened to take me away until I said my last name. Since we were one of the few black families, they knew the name. But until I said my name, they were going to take me away. And that taught me simply by walking up a street that I had walked up 100 times, that it wasn’t fair and I needed to be prepared to deal with a world that wouldn’t treat me as fairly as my parents did. I think the thing that changed me for the positive was clearly the day the museum opened. When I looked around and saw thousands of people, saw President Obama, former President Bush. When I was going to speak and they called my name, I was terrified. Scared. And as I was getting near the podium, people were calling out “Lonnie Bunch! Lonnie Bunch!” Well, I’m the third. Lonnie Bunch the third. And I thought, you know what? They’re calling my grandfather and my father, who are no longer here. And what they’re doing is reminding me, even though my father, my grandfather were only famous to their family, that in some ways they are being honored by the opening of this museum. And that changed me. It made me even more optimistic. It made me hopeful. And it gave me a sense that maybe, just maybe, I was living up to the expectations of my ancestors.
[23:29] Sinéad Burke: That’s incredibly powerful. And as somebody who wanted to — change the world sounds altruistic — but reflect history and ensure that you could build a better future. There are so many ways in which a person can do that. Deconstructing the establishment is probably the most effective, the most troublesome and the most challenging way to do that. And yet that’s exactly what you did. My understanding of you is that it was deliberate and conscious. But how did you do it both in terms of you as a person, how did you mind yourself within that process? Because there was no way it was easy. And what were the practical things do you think that made an enormous difference in terms of making it possible?
[24:13] Lonnie Bunch III: I don’t want this to sound too corny, but when I started this process, my dad was still alive. My mom is still alive to this day. Part of what hit me is, as I was going through this process and hitting these moments of real difficulty, moments where I wasn’t sure, it was a commitment to trying to get this done for them. That I wanted them to see the story of a people, the story of a country. And I wanted them to see that it was worthwhile for me becoming a historian. And so I think it was looking to them whenever it got bad. And then the other thing was that my father’s sister had died, and my father really didn’t know much about his family. Because his father was 50 when he was born. So I started doing family history for the first time. I had never done family history. Suddenly I’m finding these people who I don’t know anything about, but I’m suddenly realizing that I’m standing on a lot of shoulders. And every time I got scared, or didn’t think I could move forward, I dipped into the reservoir of history. I dipped into the reservoir of my family’s past, and took inspiration from people who fought the good fight, people who risked all to change a country. So for me, maybe more than anything else, even though history was my tool, it was also my solace. It was also what gave me the strength to persevere. And then the final thing was that I was amazed at the Smithsonian. Because only the Smithsonian could allow me to hire such gifted people, could bring people from throughout the institution to help. So in some ways, part of what gave me comfort was being part of an organization that maybe didn’t know exactly what I was trying to do, and maybe weren’t always comfortable with it, but they were willing to support a dream, and help us make concrete something that most people thought was impossible.
[26:24] Sinéad Burke: As an advocate, one of the things that I struggle with often is just feeling a bit exhausted by both how much needs to be done, the ways in which you need to go about doing it, the responsibility you have to yourself, to others, but also the reality that you can only really speak for yourself. And others need space to speak for themselves, too. But it’s tiring, but it’s also not fun, or maybe there isn’t space to have conversations to say that that constant pushing forth is exhausting. How do you manage it?
[27:00] Lonnie Bunch III: I think how I managed it was thinking about the big picture, the challenge of what I want to accomplish, and then putting that aside, and looking at the small steps I had to take to move this forward. And I really believe that I’m from the sort of shark school of management. As long as I’m moving forward, even if it’s an inch, I can survive. If I tread water, I die. And so for me, the key was to find those little victories so I could believe we were moving forward. And that’s what it was.
[27:35] Sinéad Burke: Around Christmas time, I had this moment where it was the end of the year. I had been traveling quite a bit, which I’m very privileged to get to do. And I was just tired. And I texted a friend of mine who I admire. And I said, “how do you know if you’re actually making progress? How do you know if it matters? How do you know if all that you’re putting into it is actually worth anything?” I was kind of just venting. I didn’t really expect a response. I was kind of just putting it into the ether because I felt like I needed to get it out of my head. And he texted back and he said, “if the pendulum swings any degree closer to progress, that is success. It doesn’t matter how much closer it is or how much is still to go, but if at the end of something you can measure even that, that’s worth it. Because without you and without people like you, that progress would have been impossible.”
[28:37] Sinéad Burke: And it has almost become a mantra to this day. And very similar to what you’re saying is that, you know, nothing grandiose can happen overnight, nor should it. But we need to constantly remind ourselves that positive things are happening. We are receding in many ways, but I think to mind yourself within it, particularly as an advocate, you have to measure the successes even if they are marginal.
[29:03] Lonnie Bunch III: Well, I think it’s both measuring the successes, but also recognizing that as an advocate, you are also someone who is willing to sacrifice. Two times in my life, I had a conversation with my family. Once was when I was asked to come back and build the African-American museum. And once was when I was asked to be secretary. And I called my family together and said, listen, you know how I work. So if I say yes to this, it’s going to take years off my life. It’s going to mean a sacrifice that we as a family need to understand.
[29:40] Sinéad Burke: I will never forget, and one of the top 10 moments of my life, was being in your office in the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. And it was my one and only time to the state of being in Washington, D.C. And I more or less camped out in the museum trying to get your attention. And you very kindly gave me far too much of your time. And I remember just being in your office and you turning to me and saying, “Sinéad, I’ve been offered secretary of the Smithsonian.” And I was like, that’s a big deal. What do you think? And we had a discussion about the power challenges and risk in advocacy, but the ability to imprint on other people’s lives. What’s been the best and the most challenging days that you’ve experienced thus far?
[30:31] Lonnie Bunch III: You know, the best days were the way, especially early on, when literally I received 2,000 emails from around the world of people saying this is so important. Thank you for being willing to do this. It made me realize that for 30 years, I’ve been trying to help museums and cultural institutions fight the good fight. Suddenly it made me realize that all of that is now coming back to me, to be able to sort of get this support, this groundswell of people saying you can do this. That really was unbelievably nurturing. And I still, on bad days, dip into that. I think the challenge really is I run on passion and I run on people. So to make sure that I’m not isolated, that I’m not kept away from the people, from doing the work that I love to do, if I find myself sitting in my office all day after going from meeting to meeting to meeting, I’m not doing the job that I need to do. And I think the big challenge has been how to give of yourself to 7,000 people, but to keep some of that for yourself. I think that’s been the biggest challenge.
[31:53] Sinéad Burke: So how do you do it?
[31:54] Lonnie Bunch III: Sometimes poorly. What I realized is that I’m not as young as I once was. So for the first time in my career, I pace myself. If I don’t have a late evening, I’ll come home at 5 o’clock, which is really unheard of for me. And I’ll try to protect the weekends. I used to always give my weekends away, give speeches, whatever people need. And now, unless it’s absolutely necessary, I won’t do it. Because I’ve got to protect what energy I have. And also I’ve got to protect what time I have with people I like.
[32:29] Sinéad Burke: I’m not very good at boundaries and I’m trying to get better. My family and I go on a two-week holiday every year. I’m the eldest of five, and my two parents, there’s seven of us. And those two weeks, I do nothing. I don’t answer an email. I don’t do anything. My summer vacation last year, in the midst of the holiday, I got an email from Vogue saying that I needed to take a phone call. I told my family. the easiest way to describe it is that they were not best impressed. There was a lot of argument about it. And I said, you know what? I need to take this phone call. We were in McDonald’s. I was using the Wi-Fi. And my phone rings and my siblings are eye-rolling, they’re being quite vocal. And I answered the phone and it was at Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex at the time. And I answered the phone not knowing who it was. And it became very obvious. And I just said, “Oh, hello, duchess!” in the middle of a foreign country. And my siblings said, you know what, boundaries need to be malleable. But once in your life, you’re done now. You’re done.
[34:32] Sinéad Burke: Lonnie, what’s it like to live in your body?
[34:35] Lonnie Bunch III: You know, it is trying to — this is gonna sound funny. Trying to make sure you have enough of an ego to be able to do the work you need to do. I have really never been someone that cared about fame, glory, money, anything, but I realize you’ve got to have a little of that in order to be able to sort of deal with the people you have to deal with. So I think in a way I tend to always deflect compliments, achievements. I hate getting awards, but I’ve had to learn to accept it. Because somebody said something to me that was so powerful. I was getting an award recently and I just said, “look, I don’t want it. Can I turn it down?”
[35:20] Lonnie Bunch III: And this woman said to me, she quoted a woman named Dorothy Height, who is this amazing woman who died a couple years ago, who was one of the women leading sort of the civil rights boom, but never got the acclaim and visibility. And she said to me, “Dorothy Height used to always say when somebody was gonna get an award, and they would say, you know, I don’t want it. I’m not worthy. I should get it. She said, this isn’t about you. Black people have worked so hard to get you where you are that you have to accept this award for the community.” That transformed how I thought about things. Suddenly it was OK to get an award because it really wasn’t about me. It was thanking Sojourner Truth or Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass for the work they did. Thanking people that I’ll never know. So that has been one of the big differences for me since I’ve been secretary is to accept compliments and acclaim.
[36:14] Sinéad Burke: How do you modulate your ego?
[36:16] Lonnie Bunch III: Well, luckily, I have two amazing daughters and a strong wife. They make sure that if I start to believe my clippings, they’ll cut me down to size.
[36:26] Sinéad Burke: Yeah, my positioning is not near yours, but as the eldest of five children and being Irish, it’s made very clear when I’m THE Sinéad Burke, when that’s useful to them, and when I’m just Sinéad who is occupying their bedroom to record podcast. And could you please hurry up? I’m intrigued by this idea and this constant vision that you have of fairness and of justice and of fighting the good fight. Day to day. What’s the monologue that’s in your head?
[36:59] Lonnie Bunch III: It is really never letting the business-as-usual, the work that you have to do, get in the way of the work you must do. That if I don’t feel that every day I’m doing something that makes the country better, that gives some sense of fairness to people, then I’m not doing my job. When I beat myself up is when I’m saying, “I was in 15 meetings today and I solved this budget crisis and we wrestled with –.” But is that getting us closer to the promised land? Is that really pushing us in a way that I want, which is more fairness? So I think what I try to do is to remember, I don’t get it every day, but to remember, am I pushing that stone up a little bit more to make sure that there’s a little more fairness for somebody? If I’m not doing that, then I’m very critical of myself. Then I wonder, you know, is this the right job for me?
[37:56] Sinéad Burke: How did you define the promised land?
[37:59] Lonnie Bunch III: The promised land is when I can look and see a couple of things. One, see people understanding themselves better by using history. Understanding that to become the country that we supposedly are based on our constitution and Declaration of Independence, you’ve got to embrace the unvarnished truth. You’ve got to be comfortable with ambiguity. You’ve got to be recognizing that it is a work in progress, not a final product. But my hope is that through using history, through using museums, we can point people towards that promised land. We can help people see there is something powerful about what America says it is. Not necessarily what it is, what it says it is. And if I can remind people of how powerful that goal is, that to me is an achievement.
[38:57] Sinéad Burke: In talking about museums, my parents are amazing people and always brought us to museums as children. We came from a very working-class and poor background and lived in a poor part of Dublin. And when I started to teach in those communities, it really struck me how many children didn’t go to museums. They weren’t brought, they didn’t know what they were, they walked past the buildings every day, but had never been inside them. And I think there is still a challenge in opening up those gates to different types of people, whether that’s classism, ableism, racism, the various systemic barriers that exist. But what would you say to either encourage cultural institutions or to encourage people to rid themselves of that fear and to just try?
[39:45] Lonnie Bunch III: I think it is first of all, incumbent upon cultural situations to realize that what their real job is, it is not to preserve collections. It’s not to shape the scholarship. Their real job is to look at their community, however you want to define it, and shape the museum to fit that community. They have to recognize that it’s not enough to say, let’s build it and they’ll come. What’s really interesting to me is this moment in my life — because I have lived my life as the quintessential outsider. Banging on the door. Let me tell the story of the civil rights movement. Le me tell the story of women’s history. Let me make sure these museums are different. And they have. They’ve changed. But suddenly now I’m the quintessential insider, which is really weird. And so I guess the best way to describe it is as the Smithsonian has been closed, I’ve been sending, you know, videos to the staff. And somebody wrote back, “oh, my God! It’s so nice to see you without a tie.” And I realize people don’t know me. You know, I am that guy outside saying, let me in. So I think it’s incumbent upon these cultural institutions. And they all want to reach out, but candidly, part of what limits their reaching out is that I’m not convinced they’ve embraced diversity, inclusion, access at their heart.
[41:11] Lonnie Bunch III: They’ll talk about it. But to really say when I look at boards of museums, are they diverse? When I look at the staff who’s wrestling with these questions, how are they making sure that people see themselves in museums? So I am 15, 16 loving history. And I was told there was something called the New Jersey Historical Society where there would be history that I could learn. So I decided I was going to write a paper and go down there. And so I took a bus from my little town. I put on my best high school letter sweater to show I was an athlete. I bought a brand new notebook and I went to this New Jersey Historical Society. And in those days, it had a big glass window. So I knocked on the door and there was a woman at the end of the hall, very blonde, who looked up at me, saw me, and she put her head down. So I knocked again. But this time I turned so you could see my high school letter and my new booklet and she waved me away. She wouldn’t let me in. And I vowed that what I would do is demand that museums never wave away people again. And so part of my hope is that not only will museums never wave away people, but museums will open the doors so they can be shaped by those very people that they’ve once waved away. That’s my hope.
[42:35] Sinéad Burke: I think it’s such a challenge because so many museums and cultural institutions are housed in old historic buildings, which are beautiful to look at but inaccessible to so many physically disabled people. I got to go to the Met Gala last year. And the whole symbol of the Met gala is a flight of stairs. I was the second-ever physically disabled person to attend the Met Gala in its entire history, and the first ever little person. And with the help of Anna Wintour of Vogue, Gucci and the Met, we had to come up with this access plan for me for the night. We had footstools in bathrooms. We had to audit the stairs. And I was really conscious throughout that entire process that even though we were making it accessible, it was really only accessible to me. There was no sign language interpreter on stage. The wheelchair accessible entrance was not a photograph moment. It wasn’t a red carpet. And what I hope is that even in this moment of turmoil and turbulence, we are relying on digital more. And I’m really interested in what we learn that as museums have to embrace digital and the Internet in order to create access, that actually we embody these strategies and how we work forever more. Because even with the most inclusive culture, it’s because of the physical spaces that so many museums occupy. And, you know, I’ll never forget being in your museum and that ramp being there. And not being there as a very deliberate symbol of access, but yet it was. Because everybody benefited from it. It wasn’t an option. Everybody just took the most accessible route. But that is not something that most museums think of or consider because, again, disabled people are just not in the room.
[44:15] Lonnie Bunch III: I think that’s really important. I mean, my argument is that what this pandemic has done is it’s forced us to redefine what is the new norm. The notion of going back to business as usual is not the case. And so for me, what this is, is an opportunity to rethink so many other things. To rethink questions of access, to rethink what is the fact that people are now much more comfortable receiving digital content at all ages. So what does that mean for these institutions? As staff are worried about their own health, who are suddenly recognizing there’s some benefit from working at home, how do we rethink our workforce? So for me, this is an opportunity to think about how do we use a horrible moment, but how do we use that moment to continue the kind of transformation I believe. I believe very strongly that museums will never be what they need to be unless a diverse array of people not only go, but own it. Feel that this is their home. And as you may recall, when I opened the African-American museum, my last comments were “welcome home.” Because that’s where I want people to think about cultural institutions.
[45:33] Lonnie Bunch III: I want them to be your second home. And in order to do that, it means there’s so much that has to change. And what I’ve said time and time again is cultural institutions should not rest on their laurels, should not think because they did an exhibition on gender that they’d made the promised land. So my notion is to continue to push, prod and teach, so that there are generations that long after I’m gone are still fighting this fight. Because I do believe that much like the fact that you’ve got to have eternal vigilance to protect liberty, I think you need to eternally challenge and push these institutions to be better. They’ll never be there by themselves.
[46:15] Sinéad Burke: I was in the Prado Museum in Madrid last year, and you can imagine where this is going. And I was on a guided tour, and a friend of mine said, “how are they going to manage the paintings up ahead?” And they are very famous paintings. They are very famous paintings of people who look like me, not painted, of course, by people who look like me. And it was interesting because in the museum’s attempt to be inclusive, they do not describe the dwarf character who looks like me, who is in the rear. And that character’s name is not listed on the information that is to the side of it. And I remember having a conversation with the museum and said, like, it’s so important, because if you don’t talk about it, if it’s not listed, if I’m visually impaired, looking at this portrait, by your description alone, I have no way of an idea that that person and character exists. And surely their existence is valid. And it is historic. It is reflective of a moment in time. And actually it is one of the few portraits ever made including a body like mine. But the fear and nervousness came about because they’ve never had anybody like me guiding them through that. And actually, instead of welcoming the conversation, for fear of friction they’ve almost become apathetic. And I think it’s just a microcosm of the world around us. And we need to kind of do better and do more at it. What gives you hope, Lonnie?
[47:47] Lonnie Bunch III: What gives me hope is when I walk in to the African-American museum and see a grandmother telling her grandson about struggle, but from that struggle comes triumph and resiliency. What gives me hope is history. When I read history, as horrible and terrible as the past has been, people didn’t quit. People didn’t give up. And what I love about black people more than anything else is that historically, black Americans have loved the country that didn’t love them back. But they demanded their country live up to its ideals. And that’s so much of what has changed has been change because people who are on the outside demanded that the country look at them, listen to them, and begin to change. I am hopeful because of the past. But I’m also smart enough to know it’s not a linear march to progress. And that we are in times where there are challenges, we’ve stepped back, we aren’t fighting the good fight the way I’d like to see us fight it. But the reality is this too shall pass.
[48:59] Sinéad Burke: What do you want your legacy to be? [
[49:02] Lonnie Bunch III: All right, last story. I am six years old and I’m taken to a cabin back in the woods in this southern state that supposedly I have relatives. And there’s an old man. He’s scared me. He’s laying on this bed. And he could barely move, but he made me come close to him. I’m terrified. And he had huge hands, and he put his hand and covered my whole head. And that’s the last I saw of the guy. Terrified me. I found out years later that he was my great-grandfather who was born a slave. So my legacy is that I was touched by somebody who was once enslaved. And my grandchildren, if they live a long life, will live into the 22nd century. So my legacy is simply passing on the love, the strength, the belief in a country that this man had to my grandchildren. Yes, my legacy is the building. Yes, my legacy is changing the way museums should think about themselves. But my real legacy is making sure those grandchildren live in a fairer America. And let them recognize that they come from — they say in the movies — good stock. And that good stock means you better fight to make sure the country what you hope will always be.
[50:30] Sinéad Burke: That idea of legacy, that idea of starting at one point, either as you or as your ancestors and moving through the world, and exactly as you said, progress is not linear. And for many of us, how we live our lives is actually linear. Very few get to achieve an ascent. And gosh, do you have an ascent. As secretary of the Smithsonian, what would you say to you when you were in that back garden and you were told to, you know, you go to the hose, everybody else gets the Kool-Aid?
[51:07] Lonnie Bunch III: I would say, remember that everybody will define you, but the most important person is yourself. To believe in yourself and to believe in your own definition. I would tell that person that every time somebody hurt you with language, or with their fists, it hurt. But it also made you resilient. It made you recognize that if you could take that, you could take other things as well. So I want people to believe that they can — I would want the young Lonnie Bunch to believe that all that you’re going through is worth it, as long as you use it as the tool to build upon, not as the wall to prevent you from moving forward.
[51:58] Sinéad Burke: And all of these moments shape you. And we wouldn’t be who we are as people today without all of those granular moments that twist and shape our personality and our view on the world. Lonnie, thank you so much. This has been such a treat. I really appreciate it. And please stay safe.
[52:14] Lonnie Bunch III: Thank you. And you, too. Please. I’ll see you in Dublin.
[52:22] Sinéad Burke: One of my favorite parts of this conversation was the echoing of that mantra. Speaking truth to power and finding ways in which to bring about justice. What I learned most in this conversation was the power and the impact that one person can have. I think, particularly in a pandemic, we are often so reminded of the limited space that we must occupy, particularly in terms of connecting with others. I mean, it’s measured. We’re supposed to be six feet away from each other at all times. But actually, what is the impact that we can each have? You know, Lonnie had a vision for creating a safe space and an important space to center black stories and the black experience. I imagine when he first dreamed it, it seemed impossible. And now it’s the Smithsonian Institute. And an example of best practice and the power of storytelling and advocacy for every community and society at large. Kind of makes me wonder, you know, the kids who perhaps are being homeschooled right now, who love history or love math, who for whatever reason think that their dream at the moment needs to be changed in order to be useful to the economy, or history doesn’t have a value. What’s their potential right now? Next week, I’m talking to bestselling author Dani Shapiro. Right now, a lot of us are consuming some form of art and story on a daily basis, whether it’s through TV, podcasts like this and books. I cherished my conversation with Dani about her creative process, and using art to process difficult times in her past.
[53:59] Dani Shapiro: What is the thing that you’re most mortified about? What is the thing that you feel that if anybody knew about you, you would just curl up into a little ball and die of shame? Write that. You don’t have to show anyone necessarily. Write it as if no one will ever read it, but write that. But the thing is, that sentence, that sentiment, that thought is the one that readers eventually say, “ah, that moment. Me too. I feel the same way.”
[54:36] Sinéad Burke: The people that I’m thinking of this week are those children who have just been told that these lockdowns are being continued. That they won’t return to school until September. Maybe those children who have been bullied at school and being home is a reprieve. And for the first time, they feel like education is a safe space. That must be really hard. But also so many children, school is one of their only forms of socialization. Perhaps they miss their friends desperately. And yes, with technology and Zoom and FaceTime, maybe they can connect in other ways. But I’m thinking of the children who feel more disconnected than ever, who don’t have school as a safe space. As the guide for their moral development, and the person that they might become, are just feeling gripped with anxiety and fear about what’s next. And what the world and school might be like when they return to it and have to reintroduce themselves for the first time all over again. Those are the people who are on my mind this week, and I think we could be mindful of them all just a little bit more.
[55:38] Sinéad Burke: As Me with Sinéad is a Lemonada Media original and is executive produced by Jessica Cordova Kramer. Assistant produced by Claire Jones and edited by Ivan Kuraev. Music is by Jerome Rankin. Our sales and distribution partner is Westwood One. If you’ve liked what you’ve heard, don’t be shy. Tell your friends or listen and subscribe on Apple, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you like to listen, and rate and review as well. To continue the conversation, find me on Instagram and Twitter @thesineadburke and find Lemonada Media on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook @LemonadaMedia.