The American Historian

Historians on the National Stage

Joanne Meyerowitz

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With all the troubling news coming out of Washington, it’s a relief to find something positive to report. Two distinguished historians—both active OAH members—have accepted key appointments at the Smithsonian Institution. Lonnie G. Bunch III is the new secretary of the entire institution. He oversees nineteen museums and galleries, twenty-one libraries, nine research centers, and also the National Zoo. Anthea M. Hartig is the new Elizabeth MacMillan Director of the National Museum of American History (NMAH), which houses 1.8 million artifacts, holds over three linear miles of archival materials, and operates with a budget of $50 million a year. Their appointments are historic firsts: Bunch is the first African American and first historian to head the Smithsonian, and Hartig is the first woman to serve as permanent director of the NMAH.
Lonnie Bunch is best known as the founding director of the acclaimed National Museum of African American History and Culture, but his long career in public history began in 1978, after graduate studies in African American history at American University. He started out as a historian at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, taught at the University of Massachusetts, then accepted a job as the founding curator at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles. From there, he served as associate director for curatorial affairs at the National Museum of American History and president of the Chicago Historical Society. Along the way, Bunch found his calling, as he said in an oral history interview, in “straddling two worlds, the academic and the public,” in combining “good scholarship” with “state-of-the-art exhibitions.”
When Bunch went to graduate school, he didn’t expect to work in public history. At that time, his most impressive feat in museums was a sixth-grade mishap, in which he knocked over a suit of armor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His claim to fame now comes from a string of accomplishments, including his eleven-year sprint, collecting more than 35,000 artifacts, enticing donors to contribute $540 million, and building a world-renowned, 400,000-square-foot African American history museum from the ground up. His vision of African American history as “the quintessential American history” has attracted unprecedented crowds to the museum from its opening day three years ago.
Anthea Hartig, too, has had an impressive run in public history. She earned her Ph.D. at the University of California at Riverside, taught at La Sierra University, and worked as an urban preservation planner. She directed the Western Region office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and then served for seven years as the Executive Director and CEO of the California Historical Society (CHS). At the CHS, as one account described it, Hartig had plans to move a “sclerotic state institution in the direction of ‘up and out.’” And so she did. She raised more than $20 million, refurbished the building, inaugurated a Digital Library, and built cooperative relationships with state, city, and private agencies. During her tenure, the CHS staged more than 20 exhibitions, including ones on the Spanish empire in California, the transcontinental railroad, Chicanx murals in Los Angeles, and the Summer of Love.
Hartig knows how to put on a show. Her first exhibition at the CHS celebrated the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge. Hartig painted the building’s exterior International Orange to match the iconic bridge. At the opening gala, dressed in orange herself, she greeted around 700 attendees who lined up to see the exhibit. A companion publication, an e-book, included photos, music, artwork, and oral histories of bridge workers. At the NMAH, where she started in February, Hartig is overseeing three new exhibitions in the Smithsonian’s American Women’s History Initiative, the rehabilitation of the building’s huge west wing, and the opening of the Molina Family Latino Gallery on Latinx history. “I hope,” she told a reporter, “to bring a strong sense of inclusivity and access to all the great work of the Museum.”
Bunch and Hartig have taken circuitous routes, with multiple jobs that allowed them to learn the skills, flex the talents, and make the connections that landed them in their new positions. They show us how to bring American history in all its diversity to the broadest public and how to present it vividly in multi-media form. When we track their extraordinary careers, we can see the opportunities that museums, historical societies, and historic preservation—local and national, small and large—open to students of history. As Hartig told me, “That all these pathways were open to me, and openly encouraged by organizations like the OAH, has and continues to have a lasting and symbiotic benefit.”
More in their own words:
“I think the biggest goal of history at the Smithsonian ought to be to help the American public embrace ambiguity to understand that there’s not simple answers to complex questions. And if we can help the public become comfortable with wrestling with shades of gray then we’ve really made a contribution.”
--Lonnie G. Bunch III, NPR Morning Edition, June 12, 2019
Listen to the interview
“The defining experience of African-American life has been the necessity of making a way out of no way, of mustering the nimbleness, ingenuity and perseverance to establish a place in this society. That effort, over the centuries, has shaped this nation’s history so profoundly that, in many ways, African-American history is the quintessential American history. Most of the moments where American liberty has been expanded have been tied to the African-American experience. If you’re interested in American notions of freedom, if you’re interested in the broadening of fairness, opportunity and citizenship, then regardless of who you are, this is your story, too.”
--Lonnie G. Bunch III, “The Definitive Story of How the Museum of African American History and Culture Came to Be, Smithsonian Magazine, September 2016
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“One of my guiding principles as a historian is taken from James Baldwin’s talk he gave to teachers in 1963 that American history is longer, larger, more varied, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever written about it. Working to preserve historic artifacts, historic places really has been my life’s calling.”
--Anthea M. Hartig, Meet Our New Director, March 1, 2019
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“I’d like people to really think about the ways in which non-profits, universities, grad students, professors, curators, archivists, preparators, translators, designers, and artists can all work together on public history projects.”
--Anthea M. Hartig at the OAH, April 2018
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Joanne Meyerowitz is the Arthur Unobskey Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University. She is the author of Women Adrift: Independent Wage Earners in Chicago, 1880–1930 and How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States, and the editor of Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945–1960 and History and September 11th. Her current book project is tentatively titled A War on Global Poverty: The U.S., Development, and the Politics of Gender.