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Lonnie Bunch III Set To Become Smithsonian Institution's First Black Secretary

Lonnie G. Bunch III speaks during the 2016 dedication of the National Museum of African History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Bunch, the museum's founding director, will be taking over as secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in mid-June. (Astrid Riecken/Getty Images)
Lonnie G. Bunch III speaks during the 2016 dedication of the National Museum of African History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Bunch, the museum's founding director, will be taking over as secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in mid-June. (Astrid Riecken/Getty Images)

Updated at 2:35 p.m. ET

A new pilot is set to take the helm at the Smithsonian Institution.

The organization, a public-private partnership that has established and maintains many of the best-known museums in the U.S., unveiled its next secretary at a news conference Tuesday: Lonnie G. Bunch III, the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, will take over the day-to-day administration of the Smithsonian's 19 museums, 21 libraries and the National Zoo — among other operations.

Bunch's selection, made by unanimous vote of the organization's 17-member Board of Regents, makes him the first African American to serve in the role of secretary in its 173-year history. He will take over for the outgoing secretary, David Skorton, in roughly three weeks.

Shortly after his name was announced, Bunch stepped to the lectern to reflect on just what this move means to him — and to acknowledge the "challenges that the institution faces during the next decade."

"But more importantly," he said, "I'm excited by the potential to meet those challenges."

Bunch represents a new leader for the Smithsonian, but in many ways he is something of an old hand. He took over the African American history museum in 2005, steering it from the early days of its inception through its 2016 opening and beyond. Before that, he worked at the National Museum of American History for over a decade.

Yet for all his work in history, Bunch said Tuesday that he's got his eyes trained squarely on the future.

"It is important for the public to view the Smithsonian not simply as an addict of nostalgia, but as a cauldron of ideas of innovation and understanding that can be transformative for our country," he said at the news conference.

"To accomplish this, though, the Smithsonian must become a much more nimble entity," he added. "It must be an institution that is ripe with technology, an institution better suited to serve 21st century audiences, and an institution of research, of great collections, and of wonder that helps America understand itself and its world. This will ensure that the Smithsonian will always be what it once was. It will always ensure that the Smithsonian will be a place where scholarship, creativity, education and service come together for the greater good."

Within the Smithsonian Institution's leadership structure, the secretary is akin to a private company's CEO, the executive responsible for the umbrella organization's general vision and daily direction. Bunch will also often act as the Smithsonian's chief fundraiser and lobbyist — a task he knows well from his time at the African American history museum, according to David Rubenstein, chairperson of the Board of Regents.

"He basically started with no congressional appropriations, no donor money, no land, no architectural plans and no artifacts. And over a period of about 12 years or so he put everything together," Rubenstein told NPR. "So it was a real tour de force, though there were plenty of other people involved. But Lonnie was the general, and I think we all owe him a great deal of gratitude for that."

Meanwhile Skorton, a cardiologist and former president of both the University of Iowa and Cornell University, is headed to the Association of American Medical Colleges, where he will become president and CEO.

"The Regents, and the Smithsonian, are fortunate to have had Secretary Skorton's leadership, vision and commitment during a crucial period when the Smithsonian is expanding its reach and focusing its research and educational efforts," John Roberts, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court and Smithsonian chancellor, said in a statement after Skorton announced his departure late last year. "He has laid a solid foundation for the Institution's future."

Bunch will assume the role of secretary on June 16.

NPR's Elizabeth Blair contributed to this report.

Copyright NPR 2019.

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