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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CARTER ROBERTS Good morning. What a pleasure to see you again. The Smithsonian is such a central part of the American record and the American experience. What is the Smithsonian’s role today, more than 170 years after its founding?
LONNIE BUNCH The Smithsonian is a place of science and history and art, but more importantly, it’s the glue that holds the country together. It’s also a place where people will find opportunities for learning and discussion. At a time when people are getting information that’s not always the best, and at a time when people are so polarized, there are only a few places where people come together. The Smithsonian is one of them.
CR A lot of the Smithsonian’s many resources have to do with nature. You’ve got the Museum of Natural History. You’ve got the National Zoo in Washington, DC, and the Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Virginia, which work together to save wildlife species from extinction. You’ve got the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, devoted to studying tropical ecosystems. And you’ve got the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in the Chesapeake Bay. How do you convey the importance of nature for people through those assets?
LB I think the challenge is to take what we do and then tell those stories through the lens of humanity. For example, I’d love to see us do a major interdisciplinary exhibition on nature that would help people understand how climate change has shaped development over time.
CR I’d love to help you with that. Making the connection between nature and people, and their well-being, and their culture, and their lives, is the fundamental narrative that we have to tell better. If you think back to your childhood, what was your first experience with nature?
LB I lived in Belleville, in New Jersey. There were these high-tension power lines that ran through the town, and areas around them were left undisturbed, so nature took over. As kids, we would explore these areas and look for snakes and raccoons. Most people were scared of what was there. I was fascinated. I used to get in trouble for bringing home everything I found. My dad was a scientist, so he encouraged me. But I still remember the day I brought some snakes home and put them in my closet. After a while I heard my mother scream, and let’s just say that was the last time I brought anything home from my outside adventures.
CR So you were a collector from an early age.
CR Now, I’ve read your book on what it took to create the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. [Bunch is the museum’s founding executive director.] Can you offer me your pearls of wisdom on what it takes to get things done against all odds?
LB I’ve always felt that it was important to have a strong vision to understand what you want to accomplish. I have also learned to be very clear when there are compromises I’m not willing to make. This is my fourth posting at the Smithsonian, and more than once I’ve heard people saying that the bureaucracy was getting in the way of their ability to get anything done. By the way, I think you’ll find this to be a common sentiment at any large institution; it’s not unique to the Smithsonian. What I’ve realized is that my strength is knowing how to work the system—to figure out how to go from A to Z, to get things done, while at the same time making sure that the vision remains intact.
CR I gave a speech recently where students asked me for advice on making a difference in the world. And I said, pick an issue—something that’s near and dear to your heart—and learn everything about it, inside and out. Understand the system surrounding that issue if you want to get anything done.
LB Absolutely. I remember being criticized once: “Well, Lonnie, you don’t care about process.” I said, “You don’t understand me at all. I care so much about process, but process is not the goal.” I think that’s really the source of my strength.
CR What words of advice do you give to young people as they think about their lives and their careers and making a difference in the world?
LB I tell them first and foremost that they have a responsibility to make a difference—that it’s not about making money, it’s not about building a career. It’s about making sure you’re involved in the greater good. For me, that’s really step one. And then step two is to find what you love. Find the issue you want to fight for, find what you love, and go for that.
CR On that last point: Here you are, leading the Smithsonian—”America’s Attic”—a place full of scientists and curators and all this expertise in so many different realms. What’s the one area where you think you have the most to learn? Your learning curve must be vertical right now, and that must be a source of excitement, too.
LB It is exciting. I think I have the most to learn around science, but more specifically astronomy. You know, my dad was a chemist who couldn’t get a job because he was black. So he became a high school teacher. And I remember almost every night, we’d go outside and look at the stars, and he’d talk to me about Orion’s Belt, and the Big Dipper, and other constellations. And so, while there’s a lot of learning to be done in so many other areas, that learning is a way that I remember my dad.
CR Many cultures have certain animals or other natural objects that hold spiritual significance for them, and that they hold sacred. What creature or animal has special meaning for you?
LB It’s what I carry in my bag every day—I have a Zuni bear that was made for me. The bear symbolizes the power to heal, and to transform passions into true wisdom. Every morning when I sit in this chair, I pull it out. And I just touch it for a minute, to remind myself of who I am and why I’m here. And then I put it back in my bag and start my day.
CR That’s really cool. And what a great way to end. Thank you so much for your time, and for your great work leading the Smithsonian. The nation’s record is in very good hands.
LB Thank you, Carter. I really appreciate that. It’s been a pleasure.