I love visiting museums and archaeological sites. They always arouse in me a childish curiosity about different eras and how people lived back then. A curiosity driven by the stories told by museums leaves me with greater curiosity for untold stories.
This curiosity accompanies me whenever I visit an Egyptian museum, and throughout my visits to Japan’s Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Denmark’s Thorvaldsen Museum, in Copenhagen.
This same curiosity prompted me to accept the invitation of Ahmad Dallal, president of the American University in Cairo, to attend an inspiring talk called “The Power of Culture: A Conversation with Lonnie Bunch,” held on March 14 at the Malak Gabr Theatre, in AUC’s New Cairo Center for the Arts.
Founder of a Unique Museum
Lonnie G. Bunch III, an American historian, is secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and is the first African-American and the first historian to hold this position. Before taking the position, in 2019, he served as the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, one of the 21 national museums that are part of the Smithsonian Institution. The Smithsonian also runs 21 libraries, numerous educational and research centres, and the National Zoo.
In 2019, Bunch won one of the Four Freedoms Awards presented by the Roosevelt Institute, “for his significant contributions to American culture and society as a historian and storyteller.”
Early Interest in People’s Stories
In his appearance at AUC, Bunch spoke eloquently about the power of culture and history, and the role of museums in using that power for the greater good.
Responding to a question from President Dallal, who moderated the conversation, Bunch described how his own interest in history and storytelling was awakened as a child growing up in New Jersey, where his family was the only black family in their town. There, some people treated him “really horribly” while others treated him “wonderfully,” and trying to understand that sparked his passion for history.
“I tried to figure out why was that,” he said. “I thought that maybe if I understood history, first of this town, then of the country, it might help me understand myself and what I was dealing with, but also help me understand people.”
His book-loving grandfather was another reason for his interest in history and storytelling. One day, his grandfather pulled out a book with pictures of schoolchildren, taken perhaps a hundred years earlier, and said: “These children are probably no longer with us. Isn’t it a shame that under the picture, it simply says: unidentified children?” This filled the young boy’s mind with questions: How could people live and die without being identified?
He started looking for more photographs, trying to understand what people’s lives were like and whether they were treated fairly. “For me, a simple photograph shaped my entire career,” he said. “In essence, I tried to figure out how can I use history as both a mirror of who we are, but also as an opportunity to give us hope, healing and some reconciliation.”
Education and History
For Bunch, education is about perseverance and the ability to transform people’s lives. He believes that “the challenge facing academic education is to find the right tension between the search for knowledge, the search for understanding, and the ability to give people tools that they can then translate into effective jobs, into effective lives.”
As a specialist in African-American history, Bunch believes that his job is to “use history to define reality, but still give hope.”
“You cannot understand the celebration of America, the celebration of a culture, without understanding the difficult moments, he said. “For me, it is about balancing moments where one cries, where one is angry, with moments when one finds joy and one finds resilience.”
“You cannot understand the celebration of America, the celebration of a culture, without understanding the difficult moments. … I wanted to build a museum where people can feel the pain, but also feel the joy.”Lonnie G. Bunch III on his experience in founding the National Museum of African American History and Culture
So in founding the National Museum of African American History and Culture, “I wanted to build a museum where people can feel the pain, but also feel the joy.”
By doing that, he believes that people start to see these difficult moments “not as moments of embarrassment, but as moments where a nation is made better, where a nation changed over time.” He believes that by dealing with difficult subjects, “you’re allowing people to embrace them, get beyond them, learn from them, and be made better by them.”
How Do We Tell History?
Bunch said he believes that museums should “humanise history, to reduce it to a human scale so that people who know nothing about a subject matter will be engaged, will be able to see their own story.”
Referring to his own role in creating a unique museum, he said that “a historian needs to make sure that people get not just what they want, not just what’s easy, but what they need to remember.”
One way to understand difficult issues is “to see how people made a way out of no way,” he said.
Balancing Preservation and Development
The conversation also touched on the issue of preserving history, amid ongoing development efforts in many countries. Talking about Egypt, Bunch said that there is “an opportunity to reintroduce this amazing history to the world because there is a thirst for it.” He believes there is a challenge between progress and the past. “How do you make sure that you are reveling in the past while you’re moving forward as part of the nation where you’re trying to develop.”
“For me, the past is really the best engine to the future,” he said. “As we think about development in the United States, we spend a lot of time thinking about what needs to be preserved, how do we make sure that we are using history as part of the appeal of getting people to move into a community and like it, and recognise that history is as much about today and tomorrow as it is about yesterday.”
The Goal of Museums
Bunch also talked about how, despite concerns about financial sustainability, the Smithsonian recently created Smithsonian Open Access and made millions of images and documents available free. “History is too important just to be in the hands of historians, and museums are too important to be just in the hands of the few people who visit,” he said.
He added: “Open Access is really an opportunity to say, Here are millions of objects and images, an array of expertise we have that anybody can draw from.” There was a great debate about giving up revenue, he said, but “the point for me is that if the Smithsonian, if museums are educational institutions, then they need to do all they can to contribute to the way people are educated.”
For the Smithsonian, that included making its archival materials available to teachers, parents and students to use for schoolwork or personal enjoyment.
Museums in the Digital Age
The future for museums, Bunch said, is finding right tension between innovation and tradition. He believes it is important for museums use cutting-edge technologies but also to ask questions like, “what’s the best thing you can do with social media, what are the best things that digital technology allows you, and how to benefit all of this in shaping a more effective visit experience.”
Bunch also views museums as educational entities. “Your job is to think creatively about how to touch all groups of people, how to engage senior citizens or people who are way out of college or graduate school,” and make sure “you’re doing work that helps early education get excited about history, get excited about the past.” he said. At the Smithsonian, he said, the goal is, “if we can bring the creative skills we have forward, then we can help an educational system that is in some ways in trouble.”
Asked about the challenges of leading a multi-part institution like the Smithsonian and what lessons that might offer for Egypt with its many museums and heritage institutions, Bunch said that a large museum complex must think about what the role of science will be.
“There is a great opportunity for culture to be the glue that holds nations together. It is culture that allows us to understand our differences, it is culture that allows us in some ways to negotiate those differences. … Without the glue of culture, nations splinter.”Bunch on his strong belief in the power of culture
At the Smithsonian, he said, “We’ve got tropical research institutes in Panama, an astrophysical observatory at Cambridge, and an environmental research centre on the Chesapeake Bay. How do we bring all of that together and really say, Here is what the Smithsonian can contribute to your understanding of life on a sustainable planet, here’s how we can help you understand issues of climate change and the like.”
Museums, he continued, must ask: “How do you use history to give people understanding, to give people context, to give people a sense that history tells us that no matter how bad the moment, this too shall pass. It may not pass without pain or loss, but that this too shall pass if people come together for the greater good. So, how do we use the amazing creative art we have [to help] people to find new ways into understanding who they are.”
The Power of Culture
Bunch also spoke his strong belief in the power of culture. “There is a great opportunity for culture to be the glue that holds nations together,” he said.
“It is culture that allows us to understand our differences, it is culture that allows us in some ways to negotiate those differences. … Culture is the great discovery, it’s a great lens to understand things, but it’s also an opportunity to see how people come together.”
He continued: “Culture is a reservoir you can dip into for understanding and hope,” a reservoir “that will challenge you to live up to certain ideals and … will give you a sense of what is possible and provide hope for the future.”
“Without the glue of culture,” he added, “nations splinter.”
Launching Branches Overseas
Asked about creating franchised branches of museums, as the Louvre and the Guggenheim have done in locations around the world, Bunch said that when museums consider opening a branch overseas, it’s important for them to ask why they are going there.
“Are they doing it simply because they get paid a lot of money?” he asked. Making money “is not a good enough reason,” he said, but if they “have something profoundly important” they can bring to a local community, “then it is really essential.”
He cited his rejection of a plan to open a Smithsonian Museum in London. “Basically, I killed it, because I couldn’t figure out what we could contribute mightily to the culture that was in London,” he said. “Just to go in order to make some money was not in my mind a justification to craft a museum.”
He considers spreading a museum’s franchise a good idea as long as it considers what that means to all the people in the local community who may be touched by the museum. “I think you spread the franchise by good work, not necessarily by big museums.”
Benefiting from Egypt’s History
Asked how Egypt can take advantage of its history, Bunch said he would argue that “the most important thing is to find the different uses of the Egyptian past.”
“How do you create a useful and usable past that will help not just people who come from all over the world, but help people who live in this community in this country,” he said. “So I think the challenge for a lot of us who care about this is, How does what we do matter today?”
He continued: “Maybe it is enough that this really gives one a strong sense of Egyptian identity, it gives a sense of pride, maybe that is enough. But I also think that the fundamental question is: What does this mean to the people who won’t go into museums? Why should they care, and what is it you are doing that is going to help them in profound ways? … I believe so strongly in the power of museums and the power of culture, in the power of history, and that power needs to be shared as widely as it can be.”
Repatriating Objects from Foreign Collections
Answering questions from the audience, Bunch also touched on the sensitive issue for many museums of repatriating objects to their countries of origin, or returning items to native indigenous populations.
One questioner referred to an argument heard over the years that developing countries are not capable of properly preserving their culture. “I think that that’s just horrible,” Bunch said. If the lack of facilities to preserve their own collections is a challenge, he added, “then part of the responsibility of England, France, and the United States, is to work collaboratively to make sure this material can be preserved in the most effective way.”
“I think a good educator uses every tool they have, and technology is an amazing tool if it is used as a tool, not as the end of all. I’m not a big believer in turning museums into Disneyland, but I’m a big believer in selectively utilising a variety of technologies that allow people to maybe make, to jump over a chasm of lack of information.”Bunch on how museums can use technologies like simulated reality
The issue of recovering items from foreign museums is not a problem for Egyptian museums alone, he said. Friends involved in sub-Saharan African museums had made clear to him, he said, “that ninety percent of the African material culture that’s in museums is not in Africa.”
On whether museums should use technologies such as simulated reality to bridge gaps in knowledge of the past, Bunch stated: “I think a good educator uses every tool they have, and technology is an amazing tool if it is used as a tool, not as the end of all.”
He added: “I’m not a big believer in turning museums into Disneyland, but I’m a big believer in selectively utilising a variety of technologies that allow people to maybe make, to jump over a chasm of lack of information.”
Architecture and the Visitors’ Experience
About what needs to be changed in the architecture of museums to improve visitors’ experience, Bunch said: “If you are at a point where you’ve got to make major changes to enhance the visitor experience, it means you didn’t do your homework upfront.”
Understanding a museum’s audience and its use is crucial, he said. Architects and museum professionals need to recognise that a museum is not an architectural monument but an educational entity that has to work for a variety of people. Architects who design museums, he said, will gain their acclaim “if you do it so that it works for the public, not just you.”
Museum leaders and architects need a shared understanding, he said, that “this is not about you, … it’s about the greater good.”
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