Smithsonian Institution names first African American leader in 172-year history

The first African American to head the Smithsonian Institution was elected Tuesday by the collection of museums’ board of regents, the organization announced in a statement.

Lonnie G. Bunch III was elected as the 14th secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, which maintains more than a dozen museum and galleries, as well as the National Zoo. Bunch previously served as the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Bunch will replace the outgoing secretary David Skorton. His appointment makes him the first historian to hold the position and the first museum director to serve as secretary in 74 years, according to the Institution.

Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who also serves as the Smithsonian Institution’s chancellor, lauded Bunch in the statement.

“Lonnie Bunch guided, from concept to completion, the complex effort to build the premier museum celebrating African American achievements,” Roberts said. “I look forward to working with him as we approach the Smithsonian’s 175th anniversary, to increase its relevance and role as a beloved American institution and public trust.”

Bunch, who has been in the museum field for more than 35 years, said he was “humbled and honored” to be selected as the institution’s new secretary.

“I am excited to work with the Board of Regents and my colleagues throughout the Institution to build upon its legacy and to ensure that the Smithsonian will be even more relevant and more meaningful and reach more people in the future,” he said in the statement.

According to the institution, in addition to working at the African American museum, Bunch also had stints at the National Museum of American History and the National Air and Space Museum, and served for a number of years as president of the Chicago Historical Society.

The historian has also published books on a number of topics and taught at the George Washington University and American University, among other places, according to the Institution.