FYI Blog

Bringing a Museum to Life

One of the most exciting opportunities in my career as a fundraiser has been Avalon’s partnership with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) in building a robust Membership program to support the Museum’s opening in September 2016.

Lonnie Bunch, the visionary leader and founding director of the Museum, was recently appointed the 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, but before his official installation in office, he is sharing his compelling experience in a national book tour for his new memoir: A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Age of Bush, Obama, and Trump. Bunch describes the challenge and explains the title of his book, in his preface:

I saw the journey to build a museum that could help bridge the chasms that divide us as a ‘fool’s errand,’ but an errand worthy of the burdens … a journey that could help, using history and culture as a tool, a nation come to grips with its tortured racial past and maybe find understanding and hope through creation of a museum.

I was fortunate enough to attend a sold-out event on the book tour with fellow Avalonians Allison Porter, Kristin Dlesk, and Catherine Wallwork, where Bunch was interviewed by Scott Pelley of 60 Minutes.

The engrossing evening was full of stories of triumph over adversity—in the building of the museum, and for African Americans across the country throughout our nation’s history. Bunch told the story of how the Museum was conceived and ultimately built, as a bipartisan success story—with the plan and some governmental funding approved under the George W. Bush presidency, and the construction and inspirational opening of the Museum under President Obama.

Bunch also discussed excerpts from the book highlighting the ups and downs of his tenure at the Museum, after all the trials and tribulations of getting it built. Through it all, his visionary focus on this country’s need to continue the dialogue on race, confront the horrors of slavery, and celebrate African Americans’ contributions to our culture, have inspired him to keep going.

Bunch described the African American experience of laborers who were left out of history—including the fact that the US Capitol dome, which shares the National Mall with NMAAHC, was built by enslaved people.

When Pelley asked about how the Museum acquired its 40,000+ objects and stories for its exhibitions, Bunch referenced the PBS show Antiques Roadshow, which was the inspiration for the Saving African American Treasures project, that helped secure the Museum’s treasures on exhibit—70% of which came from Americans’ basements and attics, including Harriet Tubman’s hymnal and Nat Turner’s Bible.

Bunch credited the hard work of the Museum’s development staff and the membership campaign that Avalon helped to design and implement well before the Museum was built—allowing members to feel ownership, and pride in their instrumental participation in making the Museum work.

For more on Lonnie Bunch’s memoir and his book tour, visit the Smithsonian magazine’s website.