In a virtual celebration held May 24, the Newberry presented the 2021 Newberry Library Award to Lonnie G. Bunch III in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the humanities.
As Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Bunch oversees 21 libraries, 19 museums, the National Zoo, and several research organizations and education centers. Before becoming Secretary in 2019, Bunch was the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), the country’s largest cultural institution dedicated to documenting African American stories and exploring their place in American and world history.
“Throughout his career, Lonnie Bunch has harnessed the power of the humanities to challenge and enrich our understanding of ourselves and our collective relationship with the past and present,” said Daniel Greene, President and Librarian of the Newberry. “From his early work as a scholar, teacher, and curator to his achievements as director of the NMAAHC and head of the Smithsonian Institution, Secretary Bunch has advanced the public humanities and promoted values that are so important to us at the Newberry: truth, inquiry, equity, and civic engagement.”
Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1952, Bunch received undergraduate and graduate degrees in American history and African history from American University in Washington, DC. He joined the University of Maryland as a history professor before embarking on a career in museums, holding curatorial positions at the California African American Museum and then the National Museum of American History. In 2001, he became president of the Chicago Historical Society, where he led an outreach initiative to engage diverse communities across the city.
When the US Congress established the NMAAHC in 2005, Bunch was appointed the first director and given the responsibility of supervising the creation of the museum. Over the next 10 years, he helped amass a collection of 40,000 objects, hire staff, and secure funding, while managing the construction of the 400,000-square-foot building that now occupies a prominent position on the National Mall. Since opening in 2016, the NMAAHC has welcomed more than 6 million visitors.
In 2019, Bunch published an account of his experience as director of the NMAAHC titled A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Age of Bush, Obama, and Trump. He also has published widely on a variety of other subjects, including the impact of politics and funding on museums, all-Black towns in the American West, and the Black military experience.
“The Newberry has long been an inspiration to me as a place that values, supports, and advances public access to history,” said Bunch. “I am humbled to receive the 2021 Newberry Library Award. In honoring me, this award honors the power of history to help our country understand itself and grow stronger.”
The recipient of many awards and recognitions, Bunch was appointed to the Committee for the Preservation of the White House in 2002 by President George W. Bush and reappointed by President Obama in 2010. He has also received the W. E. B. Du Bois Medal from the Hutchins Center at Harvard University and the National Equal Justice Award from the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund. In 2019, he received the Roosevelt Institute’s Freedom Medal.
The Newberry Library Award is given annually to individuals and organizations to recognize contributions to the humanities. Recent recipients of the award include author Marilynne Robinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Stacy Schiff, and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.