tv Lonnie Bunch A Fools Errand CSPAN October 12, 2019 6:57pm-8:01pm EDT
[inaudible background conversations] >> prime time starts now on booktv. in just a moment lonnie bunche secretary of the smithsonian institution will recount the creation of the national museum of african american history and culture then philosophy professor michael lynch examines how the internet has changed our attitudes toward the truth. that's followed by political science professor cory robbins look at supreme court justice clarence thomas jurisprudence. at 10:00 p.m. eastern on our author interview program "after words" former obama administration national security advisor and un ambassador susan rice will reflect on her life and career. later tonight syndicated columnist jackie in the dispersement shares her thoughts on how to reduce political polarization.
that's this evening's prime time lineup. here's a dismissal smithsonian secretary lonnie bunch. >> good evening. on behalf of the smithsonian national museum of african-american history and culture welcome to "a fool's errand" book tour a conversation with secretary lonnie bunch and scott kelly. please welcome to the stage interim director of the national museum of african-american history and culture doctor spencer crew. [applause] good evening. what a wonderful crowd terrific to see this hall filled with so many people and we are very glad to have you here. i think you for the introduction. it's my pleasure to be here to
welcome you to our building. happy third anniversary. it's a great day for the museum but never would've happened without all of you here in this audience. supporting us and encouraging us as we went forward. several months ago about 90 days ago and was happily working as a professor as a professor i had a phone call from a good friend he told me something that made my heart sink and that was that he was about to be announced as the 14 secretary of the smithsonian institution.
you about that. [laughter] the second time we have 10 million hits on our webpage, 21 books done by the scholars at the museum and we look forward to continuing her fundraising with their campaign this will assure the quality of the events and museums move forward we continue to do the things that make you proud of us. during this could all taunt - - critical time of the museums existence it is my priority to continue the developing outstanding programs with some help from the new secretary we can continue to go forward to
raise the standard you expect out of us all along this evening is a continuation to have great programming. so it is my pleasure to introduce the author to share this book a fool's favor - - a fools errand. [applause] >> thank you. this book tour is generously supported by toyota. thank you to toyota. please follow us on twitter, facebook and instagram and join the conversation using #creating
and now as we continue let's welcome scott kelly. [applause] thank you so much it's so great to be with you tonight. they were setting up the chairs earlier today and i was thinking there's no way they will get that many. look at this crowd. it is unbelievable. fantastic. thank you for being with us tonight. [applause] i particularly want to think two members of the audience. lonnie's mother is with us this evening.
[applause] and his wife is with us this evening. [applause] and i went to pay particular notice to them because of course as we all know behind every great man there is a surprised woman. [laughter] the first time i came to this site with lonnie we were wearing hard hats in the floor did not exist. there is an enormous hole in the ground. he said this will be that this will be over here and this will really be spectacular and i didn't say this but i said in my head that is a lot of dreaming. but look at us now. three years. [applause] three years the museum has
been open six and a half million visitors. in its first three years it is an unparalleled triumph thanks to the dreaming of lonnie. [applause] ladies and gentlemen we have a very short film that will help me to introduce lonnie to you and let's have a look at this film about the 14th secretary of the smithsonian institution. ♪ >> creating this museum gives us a chance to manifest the dreams of many generations. the lost dream act.
>> this is more than a building but a dream come true. >> history despite its pain cannot be un- lived. >> i want to give a shout out to lonnie's unders - - important to understand this project would not and could not have happened without his drive and energy and optimism. eleven years we have dreamed and toiled for this day. today dream too long deferred is a dream no longer. we guarantee as long as there is an america this museum will educate and engage to ensure a full story of our country to
be built on the national mall. >> in may the smithsonian institute. >> i hope they can be the place where people look to not just to visit but to help them because for me it is about helping the smithsonian be the place for america that helps it grapple with what his into understand itself and its role. >> author lonnie bunche. [cheers and applause] [cheers
and applause] [laughter] your cutting into his time. what a terrific book. it's really not a book about building this magnificent monument with the most magnificent monument of the 21st century but overcoming adversity and putting a team together and the creativity involved and then to master all of the obstacles that come along you did not see coming. so first i want to ask you one of the founding principles that you mentioned in the book , you mentioned a man by the name of jenkins who had lived
in the shack that was once home to enslaved persons. mister jenkins told you that words that have shaped my career if you are a historian then your job better be people to remember not just what they want to remember but what they need to remember. how did that inform the work that you did here at the museum quick. >> he was a sharecropper who was a grandson of the enslaved woman who lived on a plantation his whole life outside of georgetown south carolina when i went to do research to interview him he wasn't sure who i was or what i did but there at the end of the day he said it's important to make sure you don't just give people what they think they want but you give them
what they really need. and for me what that really means is that everybody understands they are shaped by the african-american experience and how do we make sure that a museum gives people things that doesn't just commemorates and celebrates the challenges and tries and demands that they look and all the dark corners of the american experience and he taught me that. >> when we did the first story of the museum for 60 minutes that in your mind this would never be simply a museum of slavery. >> i think it was really important to realize slavery is essential to understanding the american experience in african-american experience but that's not the totality of black experience. for me, i was trying to find the right tension between
resiliency, optimism, pain and understanding. i wanted this museum to be a place that would allow you to cry pondering slavery or segregation but also to tap your toes to aretha franklin or somebody from the hip-hop world i have no idea who it is. [laughter] but the goal is simple to say i wanted this museum to tell a full complex picture that didn't have simple answers but a lot of shades of gray and ambiguity like life. >> you are living in chicago when the job came around and you were not at all sure you wanted to take the job. there is a line that i love the charge of conceptualizing and building a national museum and potentially on the national mall was frightening enough, but even more
unsettling was the reality that this was a museum of no. >> this is a museum that started with nothing. it had one member of the staff besides myself. no collections. no idea that it would be where we are today. no money raised and candidly there were very few people who really believe this would happen. so my notion was am i willing to take the leap to believe that no matter how long it took, we could turn the no into a place that matters. >>'s let's talk about the incredible beauty of the building itself and the architecture. you were given a lot of different plans to go over and some were unsolicited that
they knew what the museum should look like. this is my favorite, the most original unsolicited idea was sent to our office in 2008 and as i sat at my desk my executive assistant struggled to bring in a large package of architectural drawings. there were more than 100 pages that detailed what this person felt was the perfect structure for as we review the material i realized this architect had developed a design of the building in the shape of the black power - - [laughter] that design did not make a short list.
>> when i saw the black power fist i realized there are many things i could get through congress and don't think it was that. [laughter] but we realized once we got the spot on the mall. that was the big deal. and once we had it as my deputy director we spent time thinking what should it be quick so many people came up to us should look african? and not sure what that meant. should look like slavery? i knew i wanted a museum that spoke of spirituality, resiliency and optimism one that would be the first green museum on the mall. but also was a building that had a dark color because i
wanted people to realize that america is often undervalued or been less than understanding the african-american experience. there's always been a dark presence in america i thought it would be important not to settle to make sure the presence was on the mall and that's what i tried to do. >> every other building on the wall is white. >> the regulatory agencies. [laughter] had to approve this and at one point we took the design and they finally said we will accept it but can you make it white? [laughter] so i said if you will stand to the washington post and say the african-american museum has to be in a white building that i will do it.
[laughter] so he did one of those nevermin nevermind. [laughter] >> tell us about the design. the bronze colored panels that are called the corona. what is the root of that design and how did the corona come about? to me that is what makes this building the great wall of china and the kind of thing that if you're standing on the corner with this building i know where i am. >> it is a combination like any origin story there are a bunch of stories the idea this came from one of two places. either conversations that we had where we saw pictures of black women whose hands and hair were at this angle but the architect argues that comes from a europa piece that he saw. i'm not sure where but how we
got the corona because basically what happened is once we decided we would do the bronze corona we could not have solid bronze but you had to puncture it otherwise it was too reflective so the architect said we will use a computer make holes why pay too much money for holes. [laughter] so we went to charleston to take pictures of all of the ironwork that enslave pass people did and that is what's on the building it is an homage to the fact that so much of america was built by people we never know just the african-american experience but all those laborers left out of history. [applause]
>> in fact to the way we met was because of those laborers who were left out of history. migrate 60 minutes producer and i were working on a story of the 150th anniversary of the building of the capitol dome and as we got into the research, we discovered the dome was built by enslaved people to a large degree. so we started to try to find the historian who knew about that story and that's how we found lonnie bunch so we did the interview for the story and he said by the way i'm working on this other project. [laughter] which resulted in two more sensational stories for 60 minutes. the building is beautiful but it is worthless without a collection. the collection in my view and from reading the book is the most difficult part.
let me read another moment. >> when i became director i had many concerns and many issues to cause me to worry but nothin nothing, not raising money, staff, managing the bureaucracy or dealing with the council caused me greater concern than the challenge of building a national collection. there is one axiom that shapes the museum careers of curators it is the belief of options that illustrate african-american history and culture. very few museums have artifacts and objects that explore race so making the crafting of traditional execution - - exhibitions very difficult and unlikely you you
have 30000 artifacts. >> 40000. >> how on earth did that happen quick. >> we had long conversations early on. this is the smithsonian they come to see the ruby slipper so we had to find those collections but we weren't sure where to find them saw earlier in my career i was collecting in california i was told the woman had a treasure trove of material so i went to her house and basically said she had nothing and to get rid of me she said go look in the garage and it was an amazing amount of material and i never forgot may be and then one night i fell asleep in front of the television and suddenly
antiques roadshow was on. i had never seen it. what a great idea. so that we created our version called it saving african-american treasures which sounded more scholarly. [laughter] so then we would go around the country to preserve that old shawl of that photograph and then i brought out the items so i will tell one story i could tell a million but it's a story after we had done some of these programs so people knew we were looking we received a call from a collector in philadelphia who said he had material of harriet tubman. i'm thinking 19th century historian nobody does but he said come to philadelphia at
the very least i'll buy you a cheesecake - - cheesesteak. [laughter] this was a former huge penn state football player and then to pull out the pictures of her funeral nobody had ever seen and we were just done. i said oh my goodness and he got excited and he punched me. it hurt. [laughter] he pulled out 33 things and punched me every time. [laughter] it hurt. then he pulls out all the spirituals this hymnal she would sing into the south.
now suddenly we're all crying. i'm crying from the pain. [laughter] and then we realize we could not afford to buy this. it is priceless so we dance around and said what will this cost and basically said take it now. the generosity of people to build a collection that i knew we could find others of those that we found 70 percent was from the trunks and attics and basements and because of people's belief in the smithsonian we found the collection you see in this building. >> tell us about the thing that has so much residence.
>> i was giving a speech and a plantation in south carolina and an archaeologist says i can help you find material and i can show you where the insurrection occurred. and then this guy calls every month for six months. and then shows me some sites. the bible was given to a family who lost the largest number of people during the insurrection. and they kept it for years piquant was a souvenir. and then the senior curator went down and there is a great
bible so is it the real thing? and researching the age of the paper are. and then we found an image from the 18 eighties to digitize so we knew we had turner's bible. >> the price tag of all of this was half a billion dollars. the federal government covered half of that. the rest of that you had to come up with. there is so many stories of the generous people that gave their priceless family heirlooms to the collection and those that wrote multimillion dollar checks and
no surprise was oprah winfrey. overtime she was the largest financial supporter of the museum one of my favorite opera moments occurred when she called from california during a council meeting in 2015 as we neared an important fundraising milestone there was a discussion as how we would close the gap. opera, who had already committed more than $12 million said she likes rounded numbers so she increased her gift another 8 million. [laughter] not just oprah but all the people who wrote checks and companies to make this a reality. >> let me make this clear. i love oprah. [laughter] [applause] >> everybody does.
one of the reasons we were so successful fundraising was those development staff who knew how to reach out but we also had a great story how often do you get a chance to build a national museum cracks in here is your chance to do something and then to see we had to get money from corporations and one of those great successes came because of 60 minutes. we did a piece that aired on a sunday on that monday i was in new york going to the foundation i was not sure how they would react or if they would be interested when they
said you were on 60 minutes last night. they said how much do you need? [laughter] so come on 60 minutes. [laughter] so it away while there were big corporations it is a membership campaign. what people don't realize the membership is really about ownership and contributing to something special so the fact that thousands of people became members and that was instrumental to raise the money. big money from opera that money from so many people who
believed what the museum could be and that's what made it work. >> the second story had to do with artifacts from a slave ship. slavery was the first global business and there were hundreds of slave ships that you said that will be a problem because there are so many there has to be a lot of artifacts he started to call around and you and i ended up in mozambique on the trail of the slave ship but your initial optimism is not well-founded. >> i made so many mistakes i'm surprised i pulled this off. how hard could it be to find
pieces of a slave ship? we initially tracked one down and spent two years negotiating with castro's. that would not happen so there were those that we knew throughout the world and a colleague of south africa called to say if you can help us we think we found a slave ship so we did the research and product pieces we can see in the galleries it was sunken in south africa. sixty minutes came with us to mozambique when it sank it was from the mccluer tribe so we went to the people and we sat down to talk to the chief he did something that was so moving and said i give you a gift it was a vessel wrapped
in shells it was just dirt i'm trying to figure out what kind of gift is this because i'm from jersey. he looked at me and said ancestors have asked that i take the soil to the site of the rack to sprinkle it semi- people can sleep in their own land. to me was one of the most special moments of this entire endeavor because it taught me the slave trade was not hundreds of years ago but still shapes people to this very day and that was one of the greatest lessons of this process. >> ladies and gentlemen at the end of the conversation we will take your conversation you were given cards so over the next few minutes pass that
to the outside of the room. and then i will read them. look at this. this is topical presidents trumps first visit to the museum. [laughter] thanks. >> you wrote this. [laughter] before the president arrived i was confronted by several of his senior staff who expressed concern the president was in a foul mood and did not want to see anything difficult. waiting along with the secretary i wondered what kind
of tour i should provide some wide decided i would begin the visit in the area that explores the slave trade. [laughter] [applause] >> how did that go? [laughter] >> the reality is that the great strength of this museum is we can educate everybody and clearly understanding slavery and the slave trade is something the president didn't know much about. what i find fascinating is as he went to the museum he began to engage a little more and it convinced me that we could really help anybody and everybody. [laughter] to understand history better and as a result president
trump almost became a supporter of the museum. [laughter] let's not go crazy. but it tells me about the power of what this museum can do. it can educate and challenge just about everybody. so my hope is he will come back and learn some more. >> these are difficult days over the last few years with regard to race relations. we have been reminded of ugly history and that it's live - - alive in some peoples what's the role of the museum? can it be an instrument of healing a country quick.
>> i think when we created this museum we knew that there was no post- racial america. we knew there is hatred and pain and racism. they sent us death threats and told us we should not build the museum and we knew this had to be more than a monument to the past to force people to confront the past but also to contextualize the world we live today and what the monuments meant it was more about the struggle to maintain segregation. and those to provide reconciliation and healing but you cannot do that unless grappling with the unvarnished truth so that was the first step we thought that was
important for this museum. >> in terms of the obstacles you had to overcome there is an anecdote about a congressman here who generally was a great supporter of the smithsonian but expressed reservations to the secretary about the museum's existence just prior to the groundbreaking in 2012. i was concerned so i immediately made my way to his office and clearly uncomfortable the congressman applauded my efforts with said quite strongly he did not believe there should be a black museum for black people on the national mall. he talked about his belief that segregation was wrong but then revealed he was interested in supporting an idea of the american people
that was be floated as a response to the creation of african-american history and culture. >> he said i do not believe there should be a museum by black people and four people black people i sent me to uses african-american culture to understand what it means to be an american this is a broader story that if you think it's just about black people then you don't know your history. if you think this is just about slavery you don't know your history then he said i guess i am a supporter again because it was important to say think about this museum in a different way. candidly that is one of the great strengths of the museum that it says it is a story for us all and we can all find
ourselves and our history and understanding of america in this building. >> one of the things that has always struck me that is the washington monument to the great first president but the president who will say slave owner but now we have this in the shadow of the monument. what do you make of that juxtaposition quick. >> it's about time. [laughter] i think getting the site on the mall was so crucial. normally they say build in a certain place but because this would be the last museum on the mall then there was a great hesitation to say this has to be on the mall there
was a discussion could it be in the old arts and industries building or only where other people know where they are. so for us the challenge was to get on the mall and there was a great deal of opposition. i remember there was a group called the friends of the mall which ms. they were not the friends of us. [laughter] they sent a letter to say you cannot build this museum on this spot because it will kill grass so we sent a picture the grass is already dead. [laughter] but it was crucially important to help the regents who had to make that decision to see how important it was to be on the national mall that this was a story that made complete the story of what else the lincoln memorial the washington monument.
so the greatest moment candidly was the day we convinced the regents to say on this spot we will build a museum that america can never ignore. [applause] >> you say at a time the smithsonian didn't want to build the building they thought it would be adequate to have a wing of the national museum of american history devoted to african-american history just a wing. >> i think the smithsonian was very ambivalent going back 25 or 30 years. should there be this museum? what does it mean for the rest of the smithsonian? only it was really because of the people of efforts like john lewis who kept bringing it up every year to say you have to pass this
legislation. what was important for us was to say the story of the african-american experience is bigger than a wing or an exhibition. it deserves its own museum. i have to be honest. when i came back there's a lot of people at the smithsonian themselves who said this should not happen in a meeting very early on they said we are are worried what they are doing because they are raising money that will hurt the smithsonian. and i said i thought we were part of the smithsonian so the best example is something very small. on the id card with has the initials of the museum and asm so when i came back they said you don't have initials on yours you are not a museum. i said wait that is disrespectful and they said
you are not anything so i had to go into a meeting with senior leadership at the smithsonian to say you will put an ma ahc on this card because that was a symbol it was an equal part of the smithsonian so so much of what we did early on was to fight for respect that this was an equal museum and as i said i made sure they call the deputy director and me the director of a museum and not of a project. that was crucial. >> we mentioned one republican president but the contribution of george w. bush should not be overlooked. >> i cannot say enough about george w. bush. i was very friendly i got to know laura bush very well
before i knew him. laura bush used to ask me to give her books to read i gave her james baldwin and she read them. so i got to know her and the president. george bush is so crucial because of people said this should not be on the mall, he came out and strongly said of course this museum must be on the national mall and that helped us we went to congress so i am always grateful for george bush which is why it was crucial for me at the opening of the museum to have both president bush and president obama because they were crucial. [applause] >> and then at the opening of the museum the first african-american president. what a remarkable intersection of history.
[applause] >> i knew obama from chicago and he would say to me and his exact words are you going to get this done so a brother can cut the ribbon? [laughter] >> - - and been in the book. [laughter] but what helped but then i would go into construction meetings and say we would be delayed i would say i was talking to the president and he that we should move faster and that helped a lot. [laughter] i think there is no doubt that for me it was very special during the tenure of president obama. he was supportive and a symbol of what we expected america to be and candidly that day three years ago today as i would argue america was at its best. here was a time. [applause] crossing racial lines and political lines and economic
lines you remember that picture of michelle hugging bush that said change is possible all things are possible when we come together as a country so sometimes i look back with great longing for that day because that reminds us of the best of what america can be. >> as i'm reading the boo book, something here completely surprised me going to the heart of who is lonnie bunch and the way you view the project you talk about walking through here alone after it was all set and ready to open walking through all 81700 square feet of the inaugural exhibitions saying my farewells to marvel at what we had created i reveled in the
496 cases to house the collectio collection, 160 media presentations in the 3500 photographs and images , but more than anything else i simply said goodbye. why goodbye? you were opening the museum. >> one of the things i know that an exhibition comes alive with the people it's no longer what i wanted or what i hoped even though all the smart ideas we put forward it was all the people so it was a tradition to always say goodbye to let go. but this one was harder because we wanted to do this museum is a gift to america but i also realized it was a
gift to me. normally when i say goodbye to an exhibition i was done. but suddenly i walked through this when we went through slavery i saw the enslaved ancestors and to understand their lives better so look at the migration of blacks from south to the north they saw my grandparents to understand their lives better or stood in front of the baxter street terrace apartment i remembered how my parents told me how they had to struggle to find decent housing in the segregated north. it wasn't just about history but a way to understand my own family and myself in ways i never would have expected. >> i like to test the patience of the audience of a different book and then explain how i
came to realize only recently how much the museum means to me and people like me. i grew up in texas. nobody loves texas more than i do. but the history of texas and slavery is horrific. texas it was the nation for a few years it was the only nation on earth to codify slavery and its constitution. recently i was reading the history and i said why am i just finding out about this now? was i sick that day? i search the country and i found in a bookstore in detroit my middle school texas
history boo book. written 1962 and mister secretary i would like you to look in the index and look up slavery and tell us what it says in the index. >> it's not there. >> it's not there. >> that's pretty amazing. >> it's not there. and four generations of americans. we have had a wholly inadequate education. [applause] not just the african-american experience but as this museum
shows, the inseparable nature of the african-american experience or the entire american experience and that is what this museum means to me. [applause] >> now we will get to some good questions. thank you very much. this card says congratulations. so what is your vision for the museum and the smithsonian in 2050? >> if i'm still here we have a real problem. [laughter]
what i hope is for this museum it will continue to be the place whatever the current confederate statues or racial discrimination in cities like baltimore to help people grapple with those. that it would learn from this that it realizes that it has to engage younger audiences in boulder to explore things for go what i hope is that everybody will come to the smithsonian and that people will say i came to the smithsonian to figure out how to live my life better and that matters in profound ways
and also to make sure the carousel is still there because my grandkids and their grandkids want to get on the carousel. [applause] >> here is a tough one but you are uniquely qualified to answer you created the first green museum on the mall. that means this building meets the highest standards of environmental regulations. what can you do now with all of the museums at the smithsonian now we are facing climate chang change? >> it is crucially important the smithsonian even in the old buildings do everything it can to be carbon neutral and sustainable. one of the things i'm proudest of at the smithsonian they are already going down that road to make sure when we do refurbish older buildings
, that we replace outdated hvac. see what i learned? [laughter] so you demand the smithsonian contribute to making the country better and one of the ways is to be much more sustainable. >> albion 1879 book a fools errand the inspiration? >> absolutely. he was an abolitionist who had gone into the south during reconstruction and thought he could help bring the country back together to ensure fairness for the african-american community and he failed miserably. he was chased out and he talked about a fools errand to make a country better but yet
for me what he was also saying is even if you fail at the attempt to make a country better, wasn't sure that we failed but the notion was that our job more than anything else was to take the fools errand to do what people believed we couldn't do to make the country better and that's where the title came from. [applause] >> on that .1 of the stories he relates in a fools erland - - errand there was a high price washington consultant that they hired that wanted to get the senior staff together to discuss how they would manage failing to build the museum and you wouldn't let them talk to them. [laughter] i understand swot analysis and
all of that but there was no way we were going to fail so we were going to have that conversation i don't want to figure out the options if we fail. i want to see the faces of people who didn't give up or quit when they should have i want them to look at people to say here are people that believe in america. you will not fail you can dig into that reservoir. he was really upset with me and i'm easy-going but he was gone. [laughter] >> no place for people who cannot dream big. ladies and gentlemen thank you for being with us and for your penmanship. [laughter] and thank you for having me here. i will say good night and leave you in the hands of
secretary bench in his final thoughts for the evening. [applause] first of all thank you scott. it means a lot to me who knew the day i walked into that room to be interviewed by you it would develop into a wonderful friendship. i appreciate that. and as you know i get to stand in front but a lot of people make this work. sheeba where are you? [applause] come here she has done so much for tonight and all other stops on my book tour so please thank her as she is an example. [applause] and let me think all of you
because candidly this museum would not exist without you without any of your support, and plotting to make us the best that we could be that in essence we are here because of you and our only hope is that you will always support this museum regardless of who is sitting in the chair but recognize this as a chance to say never again will we forget and a chance to say our job more than anything else is to remember all those people who often get forgotten. our job is to say their lives matter and in fact we are better if we understand who they were. thank you for being here and thank you for all the years of support. [applause]