The Smithsonian Institution has elected Lonnie G. Bunch III as its new secretary, the organization announced in a statement on Tuesday.
Bunch, the founding director of the Smithsonian’s widely lauded National Museum of African American History and Culture, will be the first black leader in the institution’s 173-year history. He is also set to become the first historian elected to the secretary’s post and the first museum director to assume the role in more than 70 years.
“I have such a profound love of the Smithsonian,” Bunch told The Washington Post, adding that he was “a tad stunned” by his appointment. “I want to help the world see the Smithsonian as I do, as a place that matters, with gifted people who just want to serve their country,” he said.
Bunch, who has worked in the museum field for more than 35 years, joined the Smithsonian in 2005 as the director of the African American history facility, which was then in the planning stages. He helped guide the museum from its inception to its grand opening in 2016, helping compile a collection of some 40,000 objects and raising hundreds of millions of dollars from both federal funds and private donations.
Bunch, 66, will now be responsible for overseeing the Smithsonian’s 19 museums ― with nearly 155 million items in their collections ― along with 21 libraries and Washington’s National Zoo.
As secretary, he will report to the institution’s 17-person board headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.
“Lonnie Bunch guided, from concept to completion, the complex effort to build the premier museum celebrating African American achievements,” Roberts said in a statement. “I look forward to working with him as we approach the Smithsonian’s 175th anniversary, to increase its relevance and role as a beloved American institution and public trust.”
For Bunch, maintaining the institution’s relevance will in part entail making it “more effective in the digital space” and ensuring it is “better suited to serve 21st-century audiences,” he said at a Tuesday news conference.
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“It is important for the public to view the Smithsonian not simply as an addict of nostalgia, but as a cauldron of ideas of innovation and understanding that can be transformative for our country,” he said, according to NPR.
Bunch succeeds David J. Skorton, a cardiologist who announced his departure in December. Bunch is expected to begin his new post on June 16.