By LIBBY CUDMORE • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
COOPERSTOWN – One afternoon, while walking through the Smithsonian’s exhibit of Emmett Till’s glass-topped casket, Secretary Lonnie Bunch III saw a young African-American woman sitting on a bench, sobbing.
“I was about to go over to her, but a white man approached her and said, ‘I’m crying too. Can we cry together?’ And they hugged. That’s what museums can do. Museums can help us come together, share our pain and take sustenance.”
Bunch, the first the first African American and first historian to serve as head of the Smithsonian, gave a Zoom presentation on “A Vision for Museums” to the Cooperstown Graduate Program this morning.
With the pandemic forcing many museums to cut staff or face closure, Bunch acknowledged that the challenges are daunting. However, he said, collaboration with other institutions – local and national – is key to weathering the storm.
“If we can find real ways to collaborate – not just talk about collaborating – think of how transformative that would be,” he said.
He also spoke of museums as tools for advancing social justice and a deeper understanding of the American story. “You want to create a museum that does two things,” he said. “Give the visitor the unvarnished truth, and to change them,” he said. “You want to have confidence that people will be able to grapple with difficult issues.”
In 2005, he oversaw the expansion of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, upgrading collections and expanding into a 400,000-square-foot “green” building with more than 40,000 artifacts. “These stories transform us all, not just one community,” he said. “48 percent of our visitors are not African American. 30 percent say they haven’t been to a museum except on field trips.”
What makes a museum like the Smithsonian work, he said, is that they can be entertaining as well as informative. “You can see a panda, the Ruby Slippers, learn about black holes or see the Wright Flyer,” he said. “But you can also learn about climate issues and social justice. You want to make a museum contemporary, but give it the resonance to make sure people have the tools to take with them in their lives.”
“The challenge is to make sure the world understands a more complicated picture of what the world is,” he continued. “Whether that’s the Smithsonian or the Herkimer House, one can foster that kind of change through a culture of diversity and inclusion.”