David Byrd contributed to this report

The founder of the Smithsonian Institution’s newest museum, which focuses on African-American history, has been selected to lead the institution’s entire system of museums and parks.

Tuesday, the Smithsonian Board of Regents appointed Lonnie Bunch as its 14th secretary, becoming the museum’s first African-American leader in its 173-year history.

The 66-year-old Bunch will guide the world’s largest museum, education and research complex, overseeing a $1.5 billion annual budget that helps fund 19 museums, nine research centers and the National Zoo.

Bunch told the Associated Press that he is humbled and excited at taking over as Secretary.

“It is humbling, exciting.  It is something that had never crossed my mind to do,” he said. ” But it also makes me feel good because I get to give back to the institution I care the most about – the Smithsonian.”

Board of Regents chairman David Rubenstein said Bunch’s experience at three museums, reputation and fundraising skills separated him from other candidates.

However, Bunch says he was still surprised to get the Secretary’s job.

“I wasn’t even sure, when they ask you to go for this job, that they’d hire someone like me, that they’d hire an insider, they’d hire a curator.  They’d hire a historian,” he said. 

The appointment comes less than three years after the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC).

As its first director, Bunch oversaw an 11 year effort to collect more than 40,000 items before the museum opened on the National Mall in 2016. 

The museum immediately became one of Washington’s most popular attractions, drawing more than four million people in its first two and one-half-years.

The new Secretary says he does not want people to think of the Smithsonian as only looking at the past.  He wants the public to see it as suited to serving a 21st-century audience.

“And so in a way, this is also a wonderful day for the Smithsonian to sort of say it’s a place that embraces all of what America is and is comfortable with diversity of leadership and vision. So for me, this is less about a triumph for me and more about the Smithsonian recognizing what it takes to lead in the 21st Century,” he said. 

George Mason University history professor Spencer Crew will serve as the NMAAHC’s interim director.

Lonnie Bunch will assume his new duties on June 16.


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