Lonnie G. Bunch III talks about the Smithsonian’s 19th museum and the importance of history.


– Thank you Eva for those kind words and thank you guys for coming
in the rain, I’m impressed. You know, since I’m a historian let me start with a
story that frames this. Early in my career at the Smithsonian I was asked to curate an
exhibition on the 19th century. And one of the stories I wanted to tell was the story of slavery. But I didn’t want to
just do a broad subject, I said well let’s focus on one plantation. So I traveled all around
the country looking at plantations. I looked at amazing cotton plantations in Alabama, tobacco
plantations in North Carolina, interesting sugar
plantations in Louisiana. And then I was taken to a rice plantation outside of Georgetown, South Carolina, the old Waccamaw Neck. And as I went past the
swamps, suddenly I came upon a street and it had
six cabins still extant from the 1840s, but standing next to one of the cabins was a man
who was 93 years old. His name was Princey Jenkins. Princey Jenkins had lived in that cabin with his enslaved grandmother. So therefore, you can
imagine for a historian, this is the holy grail. To have somebody to talk
to about what it was like to be enslaved in this particular cabin. And Princey was wonderful, he took me to the front of the cabin
and he talked about how his grandmother used the
broom to do a hard sweep so that it would get rid
of the grass so there would be no vermin and
that they could extend their living spaces. Then he took me to the
side and talked about how children watched the
chimney so it wouldn’t catch fire or fall. Then he took me to the back and he talked for 20 minutes about the crops that his grandmother grew to supplement
the food they were given. And then we went to
the foreside or rather, I went to the foreside, he didn’t come. And I said to him, Mr. Jenkins
what happened over here? He said son, I’m not going over there. Now I’m a young scholar thinking boy, I’m gonna discover
something really amazing. And I kept saying Mr. Jenkins,
please come over here. And he said son, there’s no way. Finally I said why not, and he said because there’s nothing but
rattlesnakes over there. (crowd laughter) Now after I stopped running I said to him, why didn’t you tell me? You know, people used to
remember, now they forget. I’m not sure what a historian does, but your job ought to be to help people remember not just
what they want to remember but what they need to remember. And in some ways the
struggle to help America remember what it need to remember about the African American
experience has gone back over 100 years. For me what’s so amazing
is that the legacy of this museum that we opened last year really can be pointed to 1915 because it’s shortly
after the 50th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg
and there are all those wonderful images of old Yankees and old rebels shaking
hands but no black people. So African Americans
began to demand a site, a monument on the mall and they actually began to raise money, but
then unfortunately the war breaks out, World War One, no museum. Then the idea really gets
picked up by Calvin Coolidge in the late 1920s. They not only pass
legislation, but they put some money together to hire an
architect to draw a building. But then the Great Depression
occurs and there’s nothing. Ultimately this idea lays
fallow through the 60s and 70s and then in the 80s, Mickey Leland and John Lewis begin to
introduce legislation every year and every year it’s knocked down. Even in the 90s when they
thought they might get it passed, a senator who love the African American, Jessie Helms, basically killed
the idea for this museum. But in some ways the museum was successful for really two reasons. In 2003, legislation was passed and signed by George W. Bush and
it was signed and passed because for the first time
this wasn’t done by one party, that it wasn’t a Democrat
or a Republican but really, John Lewis’s brilliance
was able to put together an array of people who
could stand on both sides of the aisle, Democrat and Republican and pass this legislation. And in some ways in 2005 I came back. And I have to tell you,
we started this museum with a staff of two, we
had no idea where the building would be, we had
no collections whatsoever, we had no architect, we had no money. No no, my youngest daughter gave me $7.35 to start the process, but other than that we had no money. And what really was the
key was figuring out how do you fulfill the
dreams of many generations? For us that was tied to creating a vision, a vision that really
made this museum happen and part of that vision was simple. How do you create a museum
that helps America remember? Remember the rich history
of the African American, but also remember in an unvarnished way that would allow America to confront its tortured racial past? But it also had to be a
place that while you cried as you pondered the pain
of slavery or segregation, it also had to be a place
that you could tap your toes to Louis Armstrong or Aretha Franklin or somebody from the Hip Hop world, I have no idea who it was,
but that you could do that. But in some ways, if the
museum just remembered, then I would argue it failed. That in some ways, the
strength of the museum was to recognize that the African American experience was the quintessential
American experience, that when you want to
understand core American values of optimism,
resilience and spirituality, where better to look than
within this community? So for us, taking the
African American experience and using it as a lens
to explain what it meant to be an American, in other
words claim your Americanism, it was really essential to
the success of this museum. But then the other piece
was it had to be a place of collaboration. If other museums of its type who did this kind of work didn’t
benefit, then it failed. But also for us it was
crucial to craft a museum that understood that this
was an international story, that this wasn’t simply a
story within the confines of America, that the
African American experience was shaped by the diaspora and in turn it shaped the rest of the world. And that really came to me on
a trip to Lapland in Sweden. I was in the middle of
nowhere and I was sitting under a reindeer tent
with the village elder and he said to me through the interpreter are you an American? I said yeah. He said do you know Al Green? Now, Al Green the
musician, I’m sitting there in the middle of nowhere and this guy’s asking me about Al Green. And it reminded me the power
of African American culture, if Al Green was someone that the tribal chieftain knew about. And I must be honest when I came back and I said to Al Green,
the tribal chieftain knew all about you, Al
Green said of course they know about me, but that’s Al Green. So in some ways when
we began this in 2005, we didn’t have any idea
of all the challenges that would face us. One of the first challenges was really thinking about intellectually
and conceptually, what should a national museum
be in the 21st century? How do you craft an institution
that really helps America confront truthfully not only
its tortured racial past but its culpability? After all, as Americans
we’re used to being the good men and women, right? So to begin to help people say how do you understand the fullness of this story, it’s a real interesting
conceptual challenge. But also, just asking questions like what’s the role of a national
museum in a transnational age? What’s the role of the diaspora? What does Africa mean in a museum called the African American Experience? So in some ways we had
to wrestle dramatically with could you really create
a museum that mattered, that could be of value,
that could challenge America but that ultimately
might help America find reconciliation and healing? Wrestling with these really was something that was so difficult but
thank goodness in the early years we had the work
of John Hope Franklin and he put together scholars
from around the country who really helped us think
about what this museum can be. But I’ll tell you the other
real challenge going in was really the question of
how do you deal with congress? Many of you may remember the Smithsonian periodically runs afoul of congress, the Enola Gay and other things, and the question was how do you work effectively with congress? Well I remember early on in my tenure, the Smithsonian said I had to go meet a member of congress who was
key to the appropriations. And they said, however, I want you to know this guys is not gonna like you, so get ready for that. So I’m thinking great, so
the day before I’m to meet this member of congress,
I go to a reception at the library of congress and he’s there. And he’s a congressman
from North Carolina, so I tell him my mother’s
from North Carolina, we’re laughing, we’re having a great time, and I figure, oh this isn’t
gonna be hard, peace of cake. Well the next day I walk into his office, and first of all he’s got
15 members of his staff standing against the wall waiting for me, and then he’s got one of those desks where he’s up here and you’re down here. And so I say, congressman
it was really great to and he cuts me off, he says listen, I do not think the Smithsonian
should build this museum, I’m not even sure I like the Smithsonian, but I know I don’t like
you if you’re going to try to build this museum. And then he kept saying,
I’ll you what I’ll do, I’ll give you $25,000, make
it a website and go away. And he kept saying that,
and I’m sitting there going man, what am I doing? And finally, he took a breath
and I said well you know, a website isn’t enough. I was at the museum of
American history for many years and I collected the
Greensboro lunch counter and I’ve seen how people react to that and react to the Star Spangled Banner, well suddenly this member
of congress starts to shake. He gets red, he puts
his hand to his throat and he starts to cry, and
his staff hustles me out because I’m thinking he’s
having a heart attack, my career is over, Bunch
kills member of congress. (audience laughs) So I’m thinking this is not gonna work, can I still get my job back in Chicago? And I’m sitting there
waiting and he comes out and he says you reminded me that during the Greensboro sit in,
lunch counter sit-ins, I was a student at Wake Forest and I raised money to bail people out. He put his arm around
me, he said I like you, I’m not giving you any
money, but I like you. Now the good news is he
lost his re-election bid, so don’t mess with the Smithsonian. One of the challenges was
really trying to figure out where this museum should be. Traditionally when congress
tells the Smithsonian to build a museum they say put it here. In this case, they gave the Smithsonian four different choices, two off the mall, one in an old building,
and one of the spots that you can see next to
the Washington monument. And there’s some real
feeling that congress should have just said here’s your spot. But instead we had to
spend a year analyzing the spots, making arguments
and fortunately for us, the Smithsonian with its regions
and congressional regions recognized that this museum
had to be on the national mall. And so we were so fortunate
to get this space. But what really happened was
as soon as we got the space, suddenly it opened up all these questions. There were all these
people who wanted to talk about what should this museum be, what’s the public perception? I would receive letters from people saying this museum has to be a holocaust museum, it has to tell the story
of what they did to us. I had other African Americans
who would pull me aside and they would say whatever you do, don’t talk about slavery. Talk about positive
images, you have a chance to reinforce the notions of
new generations of students. But also we got a lot
of letters from people who didn’t want the
museum to exist at all. One of my favorites began
dear left-wing historian, even I knew that wasn’t a fan letter, and it went on to say though
in a very serious tone, it said what happened to
the Smithsonian I loved? It used to be a place
that celebrated America, it was the place that helped the world understand our greatness,
and now you’re going to build a museum that’s
going to talk about things that are better left unsaid. And then they said a line
that I’ve never forgotten, a line in the letter said don’t you know that America’s greatest strength
is its ability to forget? He then went on to say that people like me shouldn’t be hired, they
shouldn’t build this building, but I must admit it through me off because he signed it, best wishes for your continued success. But it struck me that
the real challenge was going to be how do we
find the right tension between what we as scholars
wanted this museum to do, what the public wanted,
and what even those who didn’t want the
museum, so we had to take that into consideration and
really try to figure out how do we make this real? Well part of it was the
strategy that was so crucial to the success of the
museum was the notion that since this idea had been
floating around since 1915, how do you make people believe? How do you make this real? And the idea came really from a, I was chastised by mayor Daley when I left Chicago to come back, he
called me into his office and he said first of all why did you leave the great city of Chicago
to go to a one horse company town called Washington? And then he said, and
you know, why would you want to run a project? And that was so helpful,
as I was leaving his office I thought that’s the key,
that this can’t be a project, we have to make the museum
exist from the day I got here. So what we did is we actually exhibit and traveled around the
country where there was exhibits on the Apollo
Theater or exhibits on slavery and we decided that we
would not only do exhibits and educational and public programs, but we actually birthed
the museum online first. So the museum was born digitally, and all of that allowed us
to sort of make an argument and people would say to me
come back when you’re open, I’d say we’re already open, we just don’t have a building. And that was so crucial in
terms of the fundraising strategy, in terms of
working with congress, so the notion of mayor Daley beating me up was so helpful to making
this a successful museum. So I called him and I
said any time you want to beat me up go ahead,
because you got good ideas. And he said when you
coming back to Chicago, and I said no no no no. And one of the things that
really made this key for us is that early on I was
at a school in Washington and this person, this kid came up to me and he said will a museum
help me understand who I am? So for me the notion of how is this museum an educational entity that helps not just this kid, but helps all
Americans find out who they are, remember who they are,
learn how they’re shaped in profound ways by the
African American experience was so crucial to the
success of this museum. The other challenge as
Eva mentioned is really building collections. Imagine, you’ve got a museum
and you’ve got nothing, so the initial thought for many people was well don’t worry about it, use technology, make it driven by technology, and my notion was no
that’s not good enough. At the Smithsonian you’ve
got to have artifacts, you’ve got to have the right flyer, the ruby slipper, the
Greensboro lunch counter, so the notion was how
do we find this stuff? Well I remember early on
in my career collecting in California and a woman said to me I don’t have anything but
go look in the basement. And she had a treasure trove of stuff. And I realized that so much
of African American history is still in basements, trunks, and attics. So we created the notion, we stole it from Antiques Roadshow, we went around the country,
bring out your stuff, we’ll help you preserve
grandma’s old shawl, but the bottom line was as
people brought things out, first of all they convinced
us that there was material that we could collect. Secondly, people wanted
to give this material to the Smithsonian, we
often said give it to local museums first but if it was really cool, it came back to DC. And we collected over
50,000 artifacts of which 70% came out of basements,
trunks, and attics. So it really was the real
reason for our success. Now the hardest decision
was who do you hire as an architect? There are so interesting questions of race that shaped this, what
does a building look like? What does a building that
says African American, what does that look like? Do you have to hire an
African American architect? What’s the role of other
people in this process? So we literally did an
international design competition with sort
of 80 firms and got six down to give us models and we ended up hiring David Adjaye
from the UK as the lead architect and Phil Freelon. And what was so interesting
was that the challenge of figuring out what the building could be was really I think the
most important challenge. And I want to come back to that and talk more about that. In 2012, we got President
Obama to break ground, and the thing we did, and
even you may remember this, we didn’t have all the money
and there was the question that can you get the money from congress? So as soon as we broke
ground, what I did is I had the construction people dig a hole next to the Washington monument, ’cause what I figured
was congress wouldn’t let a hole sit next to the
Washington monument. Luckily I was right because otherwise I was going back to Chicago real quickly. And so we began to build this building, began to construct it, began
to put artifacts in it, and then in essence it opened,
as you know, a year ago. And it was really one of the most amazing moments to really open a museum. You may remember President Bush and President Obama,
there’s a famous picture of Michelle Obama hugging President Bush, but what I remember most
about that was looking around at thousands of people on the mall, and realizing this is
America at it’s best. This is an America that
brings together diverse folks, politically, racially, ethnically, and builds something
they think is important. So for me, that was the day that restored my faith in what this country could do. But also, I think that the real
challenge was this building. Obviously if you’ve seen
it, the building looks like nothing in Washington, and
that was a conscious decision. When we got together to do the building, I said I wanted a
building that first of all was the first lead goal
building on the mall, that was really important to me. Secondly, I wanted a building that spoke of uplift, resiliency, and spirituality. But thirdly, I wanted a building
that was made of bronze, because I wanted to remind
America that there has always been a dark presence in America that often got undervalued or overlooked, and so this building was
in a way to remind us of the diversity of this country. And you could imagine oh, let’s just see, there’s 17 regulatory agencies you have to deal with,
you can just imagine the excitement or less excitement than when we brought this forward. But the thing that really
made this work for me was the fact that this
was going to be a building that reminded us as Americans that as long as there is an America this
story will be on the mall to be able to be told
and be able to be shared. And I love the fact that
it was in juxtaposition with the Washington
monument and the capital and the like, that it was a place where the story needed to be. But I think the part that
really made the building special for me was this corona. We call it the corona, and what this is is that this was going to
be a solid bronze building and the architects realized
that you can’t have solid bronze, you’ve
got to be able to punch holes in it, so they were going to do some geometric figures based on the computer and I thought that was the wrong idea. So what I did was I
went down to Charleston and New Orleans, took
pictures of all that ironwork that the enslaved craftspeople did, and that’s over the entire building. So the building is an homage to the fact that so much of our history,
so much of America’s history has been built
and shaped by people whose names we’ll never know. So this is our way to thank them and to acknowledge them,
plus it’s awfully pretty. And I love the fact that as you look at it in different lights in shines differently. But I have to tell you,
when we first started looking at this
architecturally, architects sent me all kinds of models,
and one of the models they sent was the museum in the shape of a black power fist. Now I’ve got to be honest,
I can get many things through congress, but I
wasn’t sure I could do that. So whenever the regulatory agency said we’re not sure we like this building, I’d say, you like a black power fist? They began to love this building. (audience laughs) And so one of the things
that’s beautiful to me is that this building also does something that no other building on the mall does. Any time you’re in a building on the mall you’re in the building. This is a building about vistas, it gives you views because
I want people to realize the mall itself is sacred
space for African Americans. So I want you to be able to explore an exhibition that looks
at the march on Washington and then look out and
see the Lincoln Memorial. So the notion of making
this part of the landscape was really crucial to the
success of building this museum. And then the other thing we
did was there’s a lot of water, you cross water to get into the building, there are spaces that we
call the contemplative court that gives you a chance to
decompress after wrestling with so many difficult
things, but we wanted the building to be full of
surprise, to be full of beauty, but also challenge, but also inspire. But as I said earlier,
building collections, boy that was a challenge. And some of the stories of things we had were just so moving to me. I mean, I was really struck, this is our very first artifact, this was given to me by an Afro-Ecuadorian who during the first couple
of weeks when I was working I was commuting to Chicago
so I would be working really late, and one night
this guy came at 9:30 and said I’ve got an artifact for you. And it turned out his
community fled into the swamps, so the mode of transportation were canoes. And the role of the sort of senior women were to carve canoe seats. So he gave me this canoe seat
carved by his grandmother with the Anansi spider. So to think about a
west African connection from Ecuador that went into the museum became the first artifact
in our collection and reminded us every
day to frame this through an international lens. But my favorite artifact
that was most memorable was this collection
which included the shawl of Harriet Tubman. Now many of you know Charles
Blockson, the great collector. But Charles Blockson called me one day, and he said Lonnie, I’ve got
material of Harriet Tubman and I told him, I said you’re crazy. I’m a 19th century historian, there’s nothing of Harriet Tubman, and he said well look, why don’t you come to Philadelphia and I’ll prove it to you. And I thought well, you know, at least I get a cheese
steak out of the deal. So I figured I’d go to Philly, and I go there and he pulls out a box, and he reaches in and
he pulls out pictures of Harriet Tubman’s funeral
that no one had ever seen. And whenever I would get excited, Charles Blockson’s a really big guy, and whenever I would get excited he would get excited and he would punch me. And it hurt, and so he pulled out 33 items and every time he did he punched me. Finally we get to this shawl. The shawl was given to Harriet
Tubman by Queen Victoria, and there’s this famous picture of her wrapped in this shawl
three days before she died. Well I’m crying, but I
don’t know if I’m crying from the pain or from the beauty, but what struck me is I’m
sitting there talking to him and I realize boy he’s gonna ask for money or something, we can’t afford this. And Charles Blockson,
I said okay, how much? And he said, it is yours to share with the American people. And what has moved me
most about our collecting is so many people did just that, opened up their basements,
trunks, and attics but said, this is yours. So I’ll never forget Charlie Blockson because my arm still hurts, but it was just an amazing gesture. Where people like this, this is a dress from Carlotta Walls who was
one of the Little Rock Nine. And when she was going to
desegregate Central High School, her parents didn’t have much money but they wanted her to look good. So they saved their money
and bought this dress, and if you look carefully,
it’s got the alphabet all over it, and so there’s a famous picture of her confronting
the people yelling her in that dress and the
notion that people would keep these things and
then share them with us was really powerful to me. The object that makes me cry though more than anything else is this. There was a man named Joseph Tramel who gained his freedom in the 1850s and he basically was
given his freedom paper and he was terrified that he would lose that paper, that it would get damaged by perspiration when he was working, so he made what he called
a handmade tin wallet and he put that paper in it and he’d carry it with him every day,
and then every night he would take it out and he would have the family gather round
and they’d talk about freedom, the power of freedom,
the meaning of freedom, and the family kept this
for five generations and then gave it to the Smithsonian. It’s that kind of
generosity that has really made this museum successful. Or things like this, many of us have seen those pictures of Marion Anderson when she sang on Easter morning in 1939. Well it’s all black and white, so you could almost
think that maybe she was a little nervous, a
little cowered by this, but this is the dress she wore, she was a diva, so I love the notion how an artifact can
change our understanding of a moment like Marion Anderson’s. And I could go on and on. Benjamin Banneker’s almanac
was something somebody gave us. A family by the name of
Charlton had lost a son in Korea in 1951 and all they had of him was his congressional medal of honor. But they wanted the museum to have that, for people to share that kind of thing just meant so much to us. And then we found things like this, small things that were so powerful, these were buttons and the initial TP, Thomas Porter was one of the largest slave traders in the antebellum period. And in some way his product
was considered superior, so what he would do when he would enslave people to be sold, he would
put these buttons on them, and if you saw a button with TP you knew that was a quality individual. And to actually have that
and we actually found this in a trunk in South Carolina. To be able to tell those
stories because people preserve things that
were important to them really allowed us to tell our story. Or this, these are shards
of glass from the 16th street Baptist church when
it was bombed in 1963, collected by family members,
kept for generations, and then given to the museum. Or this as another example
of my lack of wisdom. This is Nat Turner’s Bible. I was told by an archeologist
that there was Nat Turner material and I said nope, and
I put him off for six months. Finally we went down
to Southampton county, didn’t see much, but I went on the radio and I said I’d love to
have Nat Turner material. Then a woman calls, her name was Francis she was part of a family
who lost the largest amount of people to Nat Turner. And what she did was she
said that when Nat Turner was captured, he had
a sword and the Bible. And I said, well I don’t
know if this was true, so we had her story but
then we did the research. The Bible was sent down from Massachusetts in 1818, a great Smithsonian
scientist told the paper the age was right, and then
they found a photograph of the Bible in 1872 of the frontes piece and the water spots matched, so we knew we had the right Bible. So it’s that kind of both
luck but also the skill of the Smithsonian that allowed
us to tell these stories. So ultimately we were able to find things and to me the most
important material we found was remnants from a slave ship. And I had traveled the world
trying to find a slave ship. I had done a lot of work
in Cuba but we couldn’t but a deal with the
Castros, then we were told that there was some work
being done on a slave ship that left Lisbon, was
chased by the British to Mozambique in 1794,
went back to the new world and sank off the coast of Cape Town. We found it, we brought up
things like these iron ballasts. But what’s so amazing
about it is I then went to Mozambique because
there were 512 people from the Makhuwa tribe on this ship. And I went to Mozambique
and the chief of the Makhuwa tribe said I have a gift for you. He gave me this amazing
vessel, a cowry shell covered bowl and he said open it. And I opened it and it’s full of dirt and I’m trying to figure
out exactly what this is and then he said to me,
that his ancestors have pleaded that I take
this soil, take it back to the site of the wreck in Cape Town and sprinkle it over the site of the wreck so as he put it, for the
first time since 1794 my people can sleep in their own land. For me, this is why we
do the work that we do. To be able to do that, and
it was really a horrible stormy day when we actually
put the soil back out, and on all things that’s
holy, as soon as the soil was sprinkled the sun came out. Don’t mess with ancestors,
taught me that very early. So ultimately what this
museum was really about was how do you craft
exhibitions that take these artifacts that are
dramatic that really give you an understanding of the history? And the most important thing for us was how do we figure out what stories we tell? Because we had nothing,
so we spent two years interviewing people around the world. What did they know? What did they want to know,
what should they know? And we married that with scholars and what we realized
is that we had to give people a narrative, so
a third of the museum is really underground and
it really gives people a sense of slavery and
freedom and gives people an understanding of the segregation era. And really up to today, one of the things, okay I was going to stop
talking about artifacts but this is so amazing. This is a cabin for the
enslaved from a plantation in South Carolina, but
if you look carefully you suddenly can see there are two doors. When the cabin was a quote slave cabin, there was only one way in and one way out. As soon as freedom came,
they put a second door in. The notion of how do you
make manifest freedom. For me, this cabin is
one of the most powerful objects because it tells that story. And so we give people
a sense of segregation and the role of African
Americans in the military and also the kind of
changing America of today in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. But we also want people to realize this is an educational entity, so
one of the things we do is we have a whole floor that’s
just interactive education. This is an interactive
that does the Green Book, that book that was used from the 30s to help African Americans figure out where they could stay, where they can eat. So you’re literally going on a trip from Chicago to Alabama
and you’ve got to figure out where to stay, so we’re trying ways to make this history
accessible or to give people a broader understanding
of the role of sport. Not just see how fast they ran, but sport as a means of social
and racial liberation. Or how do we understand
how regional variations shape who we are as a people? Obviously talking about
the military experience as a way for African
Americans to prove their worth or giving people an opportunity to grapple with the amazing cultural creativity of African Americans but
also how people understand how culture was a bulwark
to help people survive. And there is Chuck Berry’s candy
apple red Cadillac for you. So I’ll tell this story. I did not want that Cadillac. I called Chuck Berry and
said I want your guitar that you wrote Maybellene on. He said I’m not gonna give you the guitar unless you take the car. I’m like fine, now I don’t want it, my staff is in love with it. And so I sent this young curator, his first job for me, to
go out, the deal is done, have Chuck Berry sign the paperwork and then ship the stuff back. And I said, if you get
the guitar, do that first. That was really important to me. And he calls me saying
Chuck Berry’s angry, Chuck Berry’s decided he’s not going to give you anything. So I get on the phone with Chuck Berry and Chuck Berry said I
just discovered you work for the federal government. I don’t trust the federal government, I’m not going to give you anything. So I said to him, what can
we do to make you trust us? He said have your guy eat lunch with me. So I said to Kevin, that’s your job, eat lunch with Chuck Berry,
how hard can that be? Well lunch for Chuck Berry
was 25 ice cream sandwiches. He made Kevin eat 13. When Kevin ate the 13th,
he signed the deed of gift. (crowd laughter) And I thought the car
was kind of throw in, the car has become one
of the most iconic images in the museum that people love. The car and the mothership
from George Clinton. Yeah I know, take it easy,
I know, the mothership. But what struck me is I didn’t know for sure we could find all this stuff. And that people’s
generosity, people’s sense of how important this is has
really helped to create this museum as a place
that matters for people. And we talk about everything
from film and television and have fine arts gallery,
but that’s what hits me. Two months before we
celebrated our anniversary we had 2.8 million people, we’re now up to 3.6 million people, visitors. Which means that we had
expected 4,000 visitors a day, we’re getting 8,000 visitors a day. Now maybe the most telling
notion is the dwell time. The people traditionally
spend an hour and a half at the Smithsonian in a museum, I doubled it to three
hours, people are spending five to seven hours in the museum. It’s become that kind of pilgrimage place for intergenerational sharing,
crossing racial lines, and in some ways we
really wanted to make sure that we celebrated the museum and the fact that so many people cared. So Gladys Knight came and performed and we did all kinds of community days, but in some ways, the most important thing I will leave you
with is these voices of people who tell us what they do, what they think about the museum. We have sort of store record like booths throughout the museum and we tape these and I want to just let you hear a few if I can make it work. Okay, I guess I couldn’t make it work. Can you show me how to make it work? Ah, that’s my guy. Oh, okay so now that my
button’s red, that’s it? (music plays) – [Elijah] Hello, I’m Elijah Burkhead and I’m six years old. – [Wendell] I’m Wendell
Pritchet and I live in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. – [Antonio] I am Antonio and I am from Washington, D.C. – [Shakita] I’m Shakita and I’m from Newport News, Virginia. – [Tina] Tina Orteridge,
Oakland, California. – [Woman] From South America, Bermuda. – [Man] Barbados. – [Woman] It’s so
overwhelming at first to see the history that had not been told. – [Man] Or seeing the
shackles of the children. – [Woman] It’s just, unnatural to me. – [Woman] Really hit me hard, I had to do a lot of things to stop me from crying. – [Man] It triggers your mind, it triggers your heart, it triggers past
memories of your ancestors dating back so many years. – [Man] The effects of slavery
are still being felt today. – [Woman] The marches and the
protests and the struggles. – [Woman] I’ve seen freedom,
I’ve experienced segregation. – [Man] And freedom to me is. – [Woman] The right to
choose who you want to love. – [Woman] Liberation. – [Child] Peace. – [Woman] And being black
you can be beautiful as well. – [Child] What else? – [Group] Unity. – [Woman] So many stories to tell. – [Woman] Who we are as a people. – [Child] Follow your
heart, know your culture. – [Man] Never let us forget history, ’cause history is the true teacher. – We have nearly 10,000 of
those that people have left us so, oh there’s something wrong. Okay, my staff never
lets me touch anything with technology. But the bottom line is this, let me close by talking about what this
really means to us all. Not only has it become a
place for intergenerational learning, not only has it
become a place that crosses racial boundaries, but
it really has become a gift to America, and in
the time that we’re in now it’s become even more of
a symbol and a metaphor of what is needed and what
I tell people all the time is that there’s a line
from one of the slave narratives from a man named Cornelius, um what is his name, Cornelius Holmes. And Cornelius Holmes was asked in 1939 does slavery still matter? And he said well you
know, though the slavery question is answered, it’s impact is not. It is in our highways,
it is in our schools, it is in our restaurants,
it is in our churches, it is in our minds all the day, every day. I realize what the Smithsonian has done is if we can help America
understand that they are profoundly shaped by the African American experience all the day every
day, what a gift we give. Thank you very much. (applause)

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