@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood
Smithsonian Head in Egypt: "Power of History"
“I (had) always thought that it was much more important that I was the first historian (to lead the Smithsonian) because the Smithsonian had always been led by scientists. A historian gives you context, gives you an understanding of the contemporary resonance of the work we do of the past,” Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III (left) told AUC President Ahmad S. Dallal (right).
Even while fielding anger and death threats during the 11 years of developing the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Dr. Lonnie G. Bunch III maintained his faith in people’s ability to embrace the complexity and nuance of history.
He was not disappointed.
The museum, which opened in 2016 in Washington, D.C. receives 8,000 visitors per day, double what was expected; 40 percent are not African American, and 33 percent have never been in another museum, he told an audience at the American University in Cairo (AUC) on March 14.
Now the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Dr. Bunch inspired many in the auditorium with his belief in the power of history and culture as well as the ability of museums to look at a people’s journey but give a nation’s story.
Hope is never far from Secretary Bunch’s lips.
The insightful questions of AUC President Ahmad S. Dallal, a prominent Islamic Studies scholar, and the answers of Secretary Bunch are transcribed below. Questions from the audience and Secretary Bunch’s answers can be heard on the video (40:04).
In the interview, find out how the Antiques Roadshow figures into the African American museum, why his grandfather went to dental school twice, and when he killed a plan for a Smithsonian museum in London.
The American University in Cairo was founded in 1919 by the American Mission in Egypt, which was sponsored by the United Presbyterian Church of North America. President Dallal is the former dean of Georgetown University in Qatar and served as provost at the American University of Beirut (AUB). He has taught at AUB, Stanford University, Yale University, Smith College and Georgetown University, where he also served as chair of the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies.
In 2021, President Dallal became the first Arab to head AUC. In 2019, Secretary Bunch became the first African American to head the Smithsonian.
“I’m a historian of America but because I worked in China, Japan, South Africa, it changed the way I was as an American historian. It made me ask different questions. It made me realize that every place I go, there’s The Other. In some countries, it’s based on color. In others, it’s based on gender. But there’s always The Other.”
President Dallal: Good evening. Our guest of honor, Secretary Lonnie Bunch, and Ms. Maria-Marable Bunch, welcome to Egypt and to the American University in Cairo. Your Excellency, Minister Ahmed Issa, Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, distinguished dignitaries, alumni and friends of AUC, distinguished guests, AUC Trustees and senior leaders, members of the AUC community, Ahlan wa salan. Good evening.
Thank you for joining us tonight for a conversation with a very special guest. AUC, as you know, for more than 100 years served as a meeting place of ideas and a destination of choice for prominent public figures, scholars, intellectuals, and thought leaders in every discipline from all around the world. For a century, this has happened on our iconic Tahrir Square Campus, and now we carry this forward on both campuses.
Tonight, I am delighted that we continue this tradition through a conversation with the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Dr. Lonnie Bunch, a renowned historian, scholar and museum curator. Secretary Bunch was the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, the largest national museum dedicated exclusively to African American history.
Since 2019, Secretary Bunch serves as the first historian and the first African American to lead the Smithsonian’s 21 national museums, 21 libraries, the National Zoo –if you don’t know the National Zoo in D.C., it is an educational institution – numerous research and education centers in the United States. It’s outside his extensive expertise in museum curation and leadership, but he was appointed to the committee for the preservation of the White House.
Amongst his many awards, in 2005, the American Association of Museums recognized Secretary Bunch as one of the 100 most influential museum professionals of the 20th century. In 2019, he was awarded the Freedom Medal from the Roosevelt Institute -- and I think there were only four medals issued by the institute -- for his contribution to American culture as a historian and storyteller.
A widely published author, Secretary Bunch has written on topics ranging from the black military experience, the American presidency and African American history in California, diversity in museum management, and the impact of funding and politics on American museum.
His most recent book, A Fool’s Errand : Creating the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the Age of Bush, Obama, and Trump, chronicles the journey of making the museum that would become one of the most popular destinations in Washington. I tried to visit, but there was a line. We had to sign up, and I couldn’t, and I haven’t been since, but I will (visit).
On his first visit to Egypt, we are proud to host Secretary Lonnie Bunch. Please join me in welcoming him to the stage.
From the National Museum of African History and Culture: “The building’s architecture follows classical Greco-Roman form in its use of a base and shaft, topped by a capital or corona. For our Museum, the corona is inspired by the three-tiered crowns used in Yoruban art from West Africa. Moreover, the building’s main entrance is a welcoming porch, which has architectural roots in Africa and throughout the African Diaspora, especially the American South and Caribbean. Finally, by wrapping the entire building in an ornamental ironwork, (designer David) Adjaye pays homage to the intricate ironwork crafted by enslaved African Americans in Louisiana, South Carolina, and elsewhere."
President Dallal: History is in many ways about telling a story. You have a unique personal story. In your book, you describe how your interest in history was sparked by wanting to know the stories of people you encountered in your neighborhood in New Jersey and a picture of a classroom of unidentified children in a book your grandfather lent you. Can you tell us a bit more about that start and what still sparks interest today?
Secretary Bunch: I grew up in a town, where we were the only black family. There were people who treated me horribly, and other people who treated me wonderfully. I tried to figure out why was that. I thought 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, ultimately, help me understand people. I had a grandfather who died the day before I turned 5. He used to read to me. One day, he pulled out a book that had pictures of schoolchildren. Pictures were taken, maybe, 100 years earlier. As I’m looking at these pictures, he said, “These children are probably no longer with us. Isn’t a shame that under the pictures, it just simply says, ‘Unidentified children.’ I was taken by that. How could people live their lives, die, and all we know about them was that they were unidentified. That started my passion in history.
I began to look at photographs and tried to understand what their lives were like, were they treated fairly. A simple photograph shaped my entire career. In essence, trying to figure out how do I use history as both a mirror of who we are but also as an opportunity to give hope, healing and reconciliation.
President Dallal: Thank you. Forgive me if my questions are a bit long, but I would like to introduce the audience a little bit to your background.
Your grandparents were clearly remarkable individuals, who were both very influential in your life and instilled in you the importance of education at a very young age. You also credit your grandfather for having the perseverance and tenacity to become a dentist and fund a college education for all of his children and grandchildren. At AUC, we have the privilege of being part of stories like your family’s that show the transformative power of education. It is one of our top priorities to increase access. As you know, there has been some debate about the value of university education and how to keep it relevant in a changing world. What are your thoughts on that?
Secretary Bunch: Education, especially university education, opened doors and windows for my family that wouldn’t have been open. My grandfather started out life as a sharecropper, in other words, working on other people’s land and only getting paid a percentage of the crops. He thought that was horrible. He thought there’s got to be a better way. So, he went to university at night. It took him 10 years. Then, he decided that he wanted to be a dentist. He saved his money. He went to a historically black college and got his dental degree in 1916. He came to the state of New Jersey, where I grew up, and they said they’re not going to accept a dental degree from a black school. So, he said, ‘What’s the best dental school in the country? They told him. He went to dental school twice. When he came back in 1919, he practiced then for 50 years.
So, for me, education is about perseverance. It’s about the ability to transform people’s lives. The challenge for academic education is to find the right tension between the search for knowledge and the search for understanding and the ability to give people tools that they can translate into effective jobs, into effective lives. The key is to recognize that you’ve got to find that tension, that people need to grapple with all the academic issues we love. We also have to help them recognize how do they turn that into a career.
President Dallal: Thank you.
In 2019, you became the first African American to lead the Smithsonian. In your book and many interviews, you have shared how your experience of race and being the only African American family in the town where you grew up shaped your perspective. In the context of race in America today, what does being the first mean to you?
Secretary Bunch: I (had) always thought that it was much more important that I was the first historian because the Smithsonian had always been led by scientists. A historian gives you context, gives you an understanding of the contemporary resonance of the work we do of the past.
But I have to be honest. So many people are touched by the fact that I’m the first African American, and I recognize what that says. I recognize the symbolism of that. I recognize what that provides as hope for other people. I get it almost every day when I’m in the United States. Somebody will come up to me and say thank you. I have to be honest. I’m initially very concerned about that: I want to give other people the credit. I was doing my normal, "Please, I’m not that important," and there were two elderly African American women who came up to me, said, "Thank you for being the first black secretary ," and I started to say, "It’s really not that important", and they cut me off.
They said, “When we get to honor you, we’re not honoring you. We’re honoring all the people before you who didn’t get that chance, all the people on whose shoulders you’re standing.” So, for me, being the first black secretary is understandably important, but it’s important because it really does honor my ancestors. I may be the first. I hope it then makes the fact that I may be the first, I just don’t want to be the last.
President Dallal: Thank you.
You have been quoted as saying that part of what motivates you is giving voice to the voiceless. And especially not shying away from controversy or difficult parts of history. What do you mean by that and how do you go about presenting those stories?
Secretary Bunch: One of the joys of being a historian is you can’t avoid controversy. So much of what we do historically is about debate. It’s about different points of view. And it’s often about illuminating all the dark corners of our experience.
As a specialist of African American history, I think my job is simple. My job is to use history to define reality but still give hope. People had strong points of view in building an African American museum. Some people came to me and said, "It has to be a holocaust museum. It has to tell the story of what white people did to black people." There were other people who would stop me on the street and say, "You have an opportunity to engage new generations. Don’t talk about slavery. Don’t talk about anything difficult."
(In response to an audience member’s question, he said that he had received death threats. Also, he said that some were angry at the notion of having the African American museum on the National Mall.)
I realized that you can’t understand the celebration of America, celebration of a culture, without understanding the difficult moments. So, for me, it’s about balancing moments where one cries, where one is angry, with moments where one finds joy and one finds resilience.
I wanted people to go through the museum and feel the pain but also feel the joy.
In doing that, people began to see these difficult moments not as moments of embarrassment but moments of where a nation was made better, where a nation changed over time. In essence, when I think about dealing with difficult subjects, if you do it correctly, you’re allowing people to embrace them and get beyond them, learn from them, and be made better by them.”
President Dallal: Thank you.
Before I start asking about museums, which is, of course, your expertise, allow to ask one more personal question. I know you’ve spent the last week exploring Egypt. What did you find most interesting or surprising about what you saw, and what are your impressions?
Secretary Bunch: Several things. First of all, as a historian, to come to a place where the past is so powerful, so meaningful, to so many people, I was struck by all the different people I talked to who could tell me more about this history. I think what surprised me a little bit was the conversations were always about that period, not about other periods. I’m always struck by how does understanding that history help us better understand who we are today. So, I was interested in finding more opportunities to understand contemporary Egyptian history, contemporary Egyptian society.
The other thing that surprised me was even though, my good friend, Deborah Mack, who works with me at the Smithsonian. Hey, Deb. (acknowledging Dr. Mack in the audience) She said that the traffic was bad in Cairo. Boy, did she understate that! So, I think the big surprise was how long it took to get from here to there.
“When I hired my architects to build the African American Museum, we traveled around the world together to look at buildings, to look at visitor engagement so that we had a common language because there isn’t a common language between architects and those who work in museums. Finding that common language allowed us to have debates from a reasonable point of view. It gave me more information, so I knew how to say, ‘Hey, I don’t think that’s going to work.’ But it also gave me the confidence to trust the architectural vision.” (Photo by Alan Karchmer)
President Dallal: In your book, Fool’s Errand, you highlight the challenges but also draw a road map for building a vision for preserving and disseminating untold history. How did you tell the story of a difficult history?
Secretary Bunch: Exploring something as complicated as African American history, there were several things that were important. First of all, I realized that one of the most important things for a museum to do is humanize history, is reduce it to human scale so that people who know nothing about a subject matter will be engaged, will be able to see their own story, their own family. Reducing to human scale was crucial.
Secondly though, was trying to find a strong understanding of scholarship. Scholarship was the engine, scholarship was the umbrella that protected us but then to marry that scholarship by spending years trying to understand what the public knew and what it didn’t know.
There were two things that guided the museum. One was early in my career I was exploring slavery in a Southern state, and I met a man standing next to an actual slave cabin who was in his 90s. He had lived in the cabin with his enslaved grandmother. So, for me, as an historian, this was like the Holy Grail: somebody who could really talk about what it was like. After we spent several days together, he said to me, “I’m not sure what a historian does. But maybe your job is to make sure that people remember not just what they want to remember, but what they need to remember.” For me, that really was part of the guide of the museum. How do I make sure that people get not just what they want, not just what’s easy, but what is what they need to remember?
Then, the other thing was to give people a sense that the ways to understand difficult issues is to see how people made a way out of no way. And that notion of how people used music, the military, inventions, everything that they did was really about demonstrating that they were worthy of citizenship, that they should be treated equally. So, I was fascinated by that creativity of how you make a way out of no way.
Ultimately, I work for the federal government. As you can imagine, there are different points of view about what stories you can tell. I realized that it wasn’t enough to be right. It wasn’t enough to be smart. You also had to be political. What I did from the very beginning, I built allies on both sides of the political spectrum. I realized that in the United States, you’re never going to control Congress. But all you need is a nil-nil draw. All you need is enough people to say what you’re doing is good, and that calms the fire. But recognizing that if we didn’t build those alliances, we couldn’t build the museum. So, it really was about being political, being smart, being scholarly and recognizing that no matter how good a job you do, somebody’s going to criticize you, and somebody’s going to attack you.
President Dallal: Thank you.
Secretary Bunch: But I’m a kid from New Jersey, so I know how to fight.
President Dallal: Absolutely.
In a place like Egypt, with thousands of years of history and layers of intertwining civilizations, how can such a unique and rich history be presented to the world? And how can Egypt preserve its own unparalleled cultural and historic treasures that might be at risk because of rapid development and urbanization?
Secretary Bunch: One of the great strengths is that the history of Egypt is so powerful. In some ways, I’m not sure that for many of us around the world, it doesn’t get reduced to pyramids. I mean there’s a much more complex interesting story that’s beyond the pyramid.
I think there’s an opportunity to reintroduce this amazing history to the world because there’s a thirst for it. There’s always the challenge between progress and the past. How do you make sure you’re reveling in the past while you’re moving forward as part of the nation you’re trying to develop. For me, the past is the best engine to the future. 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’re using history as part of the appeal of getting people to move into a community and the like and to recognize that history is as much about today and tomorrow as it is about yesterday.”
President Dallal: Nicely said. Especially for a historian. (Laughter)
A few years ago, you launched the Smithsonian’s open access, which gives anyone access to download, share and use millions of the Smithsonian’s images from across 21 museums, non-research centers, libraries and archives. What impact has this had and what lessons have you learned and how do you envision the future of libraries and museums in the digital era?
Secretary Bunch: What’s important to me is history. History is too important just to be in the hands of the historians. Museums are too important just to be in the hands of the few people who visit. For me, open access was an opportunity to say, “Here are millions of objects, millions of images, an array of expertise we have that anybody can draw from.”
There was a great debate about, "Oh my God, are you giving up revenue?" The point for me is if the Smithsonian, if museums are educational institutions, then they need to do all they can to contribute to the way people are educated. And one of the ways we did that was by saying, “Teachers, students, parents, you can use all of this material, whether it’s for your reports or doing work for school or just for your own edification.” That’s been an important contribution.
The future for museums, at least in the States, is really finding the right tension between innovation and tradition. By that, I mean that there is something still so powerful about the authentic, about the object. So how do you make sure that your museums use the best technology, the cutting edge? But also what’s the best thing that you can do with social media? What is the best thing that technology allows you, not to just plaster it because it’s digital? But to think about what is the best that that system allows you to do. What I would argue is that in the future, instead of thinking about bricks and mortar, and the digital, there’s going to be an integrated approach. That you’re going to think of all of this as equally important, and that’s going to allow you to shape the visitor experience more effectively.
“I was completely moved by the corona motif. It seemed like a way to start to tell a story that moves from one continent, where people were taken, along with their cultures, and used as labor, then contributed towards making another country and new cultures,” designer David Adjaye told The New York Times. (Photo by Alan Karchmer)
President Dallal: Thank you.
What are some of the ways in which the Smithsonian museums or you, as a historian, have gotten students of any age – graduates, undergraduates, K-12 – interested in history or engaged people in sharing and showcasing their own personal or family histories? Do you have tips on how this could be done here in Egypt?
Secretary Bunch: One of the things that was so important for us at the Smithsonian was when we were building the National Museum of African American History, unlike what you had, we didn’t know where collections were. So, we created a program, we went around the country. There was something on TV, Antiques Roadshow. I had never heard of it. I fell asleep one day, woke up and it was on TV. I thought, "What a good idea! I can steal that. The notion of going around the country, asking people to bring out their collections."
We weren’t trying to collect them. We were trying to help them preserve Grandma’s old shawl or that 19th-century photograph. What would happen is that people would come forward. They would call us. They would say we have this material. What it really taught me was this was the best way to get people to care about history, that they saw history through their own grandmother’s watch or through that pot that their great-grandmother had or through the car that their father waxed every Saturday. That notion of reducing it to human scale, letting them engage with these artifacts really got more people involved in history than ever before.
Secondly, as an educational entity, your job is to think creatively about how you touch all groups of people. How do you engage senior citizens or people who are way out of college or graduate school? How do you make sure that you’re doing work that helps Early Education get excited about history, get excited about the past? I think the goal for the Smithsonian is to recognize that if we bring the creative skills we have forward then, we can help an educational system that is in some ways in trouble.
I think our goal is to say how can the Smithsonian, how can museums be of value? How can they be of value in traditional ways — great exhibitions, wonderful catalogs, good scholarship? What about non-traditional ways in terms of being the kind of educational engine that young kids can draw from or how can museums contextualize today? How do museums re-evaluate what being a museum means today, not what being of value meant 50 years ago?
President Dallal: Wonderful.
I want to ask you a question about your experience, your practical experience, that might also be useful for us here in Egypt. You oversee 21 museums, 21 libraries, the National Zoo and numerous research centers. Your job sounds more complicated than a university president. How do you lead such a unique and diverse structure while also speaking of a nimble institution? How do you make such a complex institution nimble? And by extension, here, we have so many more institutions to think about.
Secretary Bunch: Well I wish the Secretary of the Smithsonian had as nice a house as the President of AUC. (Laughter) But I think, in some ways, the real question for me is how do you think about an institution that is, for a museum complex, one of the largest in the world? How do you think about what should the role of science be? We’ve got tropical research institutes in Panama, an astrophysical observatory in Cambridge, an environmental research center on the Chesapeake Bay. How do we bring all that together and say, “Here’s 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?”
How can you use history at a time when the country is very partisan, at a time when racial issues are at the forefront? 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 will come together for the greater good.
How do we use the amazing creative art that we have to help people find new ways into understanding who they are.
It’s one, thinking about the greater good that a museum can provide.
And, then, being nimble means that with all the ideas you have, you can’t have great ideas if you’re using the same old bottle, the same old structures. What we’ve had to do is spend a lot of time making sure the machine works. That we can hire people more quickly, that we can write newer contracts. Basically, the kinds of things that aren’t exciting from the outside but are essential engines for the inside. I’ve had to spend a lot of time balancing an outside vision of what we can be versus an inside reorganization that will allow us to be more nimble. I say more nimble because the Smithsonian is about as un-nimble as a place can be. So, if we could be a little more nimble, then that would be fine.
President Dallal: I now would like to ask a few questions about culture for good, which is something that you address in your work. You have often spoken of the power of history, that knowledge of the past can make American society better. Do you think that this is a peculiarly American trait, given the occasional dissonance between its ideas and reality, or do you think that the power of history can work everywhere?
Secretary Bunch: I believe that there is great opportunity for culture to be the glue that holds nations together. I believe very strongly that it is culture that allows us to understand our differences. It is culture that allows us, in some ways, to negotiate those differences. It is culture that is both a great discovery, it is a great lens to understand things. But it’s also an opportunity to see how people come together because (there are) so many cultures, at least in the United States, a culture that is married of many cultures. It’s not just a black culture or a Southern culture. It becomes a new amalgam.
For me, there’s great power in understanding that culture is a reservoir you can dip into for understanding and hope. It’s a reservoir that you can dip into that will challenge you to live up to certain ideals. And it’s a reservoir that will give you a sense of what is possible and provide hope for the future.
Without the glue of culture, nations splinter.
President Dallal: Thank you.
To some extent, you touched on this earlier, but I want to rephrase the question a little bit. Why is it very important in telling a story of years of oppression and discrimination? More specifically, what techniques have you found to be most effective in giving a voice to people in the past who did not leave behind many written traces of their own?
Secretary Bunch: It’s a commitment to finding the stories of people who have been silent. For example, one of the things we did when we did this program trying to find African American artifacts, not only did we collect the artifacts, we collected those stories. We collected people talking very powerfully about how they learned to grow cotton, how they learned to ride a bicycle. It allowed us to humanize this and bring their voices.
But then, it was also about being intentional. When we create a new museum, I would look at every exhibition. What does this tell us about the people we think we know, maybe in new ways? How does this introduce us to a whole array of people who we don’t know? And then, I would ask, ‘What does this tell us about black culture, and then what does this tell us about American culture?
So, it was being intentional in saying that these were stories that profoundly shape us all because I felt that if we created a museum that was by black people for black people, then it failed. But if we could create a museum that said it is using a particular culture as a lens to understand what it means to be an American, then, suddenly, it’s everybody’s story. Then suddenly, it's the kind of place where people are going to go time and time again because they see themselves.
President Dallal: Thank you.
Secretary Bunch: Let me just give you some examples. I’ll give you some numbers. I’m not a quantitative historian, but I’ll give you a few numbers.
When we opened the National Museum of African American History and Culture, we expected 4,000 visitors a day. We received 8,000 visitors a day. What is so powerful is that over 40 percent of the people who visit the museum are people who aren’t African American. In other words, it makes it the most diversely visited museum in the world. But also, 33 percent of the people who came into the new museum had never been in another museum in their lives. So, that notion of being this opportunity, not just to introduce people to a particular museum, but to introduce people to the power of culture, to the importance of museums, that’s really the contribution this new museum has made.”
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.: "As somebody who was once in charge of all the curators of the National Museum of American History, I realize that no one building can tell the complex story of America."
President Dallal: Thank you.
The Smithsonian will be creating museums on American women and the Latino community. Does this perpetuate separate identities for these communities? Or shouldn’t they be embraced within the major institutions of the Smithsonian? And how do you choose which communities to prioritize or showcase?
How about Arab Americans?
Secretary Bunch: I can answer the second part easily: that’s Congress’ job. Congress tells the Smithsonian what to do. That’s what we do.
It took me 11 years to build, with a variety of people, the African American Museum. So, I thought I was done. I’m not building any more new museums. But now we have an opportunity to build a women’s history museum and a Latino museum.
The question one should ask is, "Is that balkanizing American culture? Is that splintering it too much?" As somebody who was once in charge of all the curators of the National Museum of American History, I realize that no one building can tell the complex story of America.
And that if we do it right, you can come to the Smithsonian and understand what it means to be an American when you go to the Air and Space Museum, when you go to the Smithsonian American Art Gallery, when you go to the African American Museum and, in the future, when you go to the Women’s History Museum or the National Museum of the American Latino.
In essence, you’ll learn a story of a culture, but you’ll also learn a story of a country. For me, the best way to do it with regards to the museum, what you’re trying to do is look at a people’s journey but give a nation’s story. If you do it that way, what you’re doing is providing different lenses rather than lenses that say these are separate, disconnected stories. Rather, these are stories that, ultimately, allow us to understand who we are as a nation in much more complex ways, much more important ways and, in some ways, much more essential ways.”
President Dallal: Thank you.
What is your opinion – I’m going to try to finish my questions and then open the floor for questions. I’m sure that our audience would have their own. – what is your opinion of franchised branches of museums such as the Louvre or Guggenheim models located around the world? (Pause) I’m sure you can be diplomatic.
Secretary Bunch: I’m always so shy. (Pause) It’s a question of why museums are going to different places to quote franchise. Are they doing it simply because they get paid a lot of money? If that’s the case, it seems to me that’s not a good enough reason. If there is something profoundly important that you can bring to a local community, then I think it’s really essential.
When I became Secretary of the Smithsonian, there was 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. Just to go in order to make some money wasn’t in my mind justification to craft a museum. My argument is if you are going to craft something in Dubai or doing something (somewhere else), what does it mean to the local community? Not what does it mean because they can say the Guggenheim is in Dubai but rather what does it mean to all the people who may be touched by that museum? If it makes sense, then that works. If it’s simply about how do you spread the franchise, I think you spread the franchise by good work, not necessarily by big museums.
President Dallal: Thank you.
My last question, also relevant to Egypt. As a historian, an academic, with a lifetime experience in both telling the stories of the past, a very rich past, and watching culture and identity transform in real time in the United States, of course, what advice do you give us here in Egypt with a very very rich past but also a very rapid transformation in real time.
Secretary Bunch: I 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 the people who come from all over the world but help the people who live in this community, in this country. The challenge for a lot of us who care about this is how does what we do matter today? Maybe it’s enough that this gives one a strong sense of Egyptian identity, it gives a sense of pride. Maybe that’s enough. The fundamental question is what does this mean to the people who won’t go into the museums. Why should they care? And what is it that you’re doing that’s going to help them in profound ways. I believe so strongly in the power of museums and the power of culture and the power of history, that that power needs to be shared as widely as it can be.
President Dallal: Thank you so much.
The Great Egyptian Museum is set to become the world’s largest archaeological complex. Twenty-one years in the making, it is scheduled to open to the public in 2023. The museum will showcase prehistoric, pharaonic, and ancient Greek and Roman artifacts King Tutankhamun’s entire treasures collection will be on display. The building, modeled on a pyramid motif, lines up with the nearby Great Pyramid of Khufu and the Pyramid of Menkaure. (Photo by Heneghan Peng Architects)