American University named Lonnie G. Bunch III the recipient of the 2020 Cyrus A. Ansary Medal for leadership and service. Bunch, who received both undergraduate and graduate degrees in history from AU’s College of Arts and Sciences, is the 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian. As secretary, he oversees 19 museums, 21 libraries, the National Zoo, numerous research centers, and several education units and centers.
A true AU changemaker, Bunch was the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and is the first historian to be Secretary of the Smithsonian. During the university’s annual President’s Circle Celebration where he was honored, Bunch shared with AU President Sylvia M. Burwell his experience building the museum, the social justice role of museums, the future of the Smithsonian and leadership during challenging times.
“Lonnie Bunch is a shining example of how AU alumni–more than 135,000 around the world–make an impact in their communities and shape our changing world. His commitment to scholarship, education, and building a brighter future informed by the lessons of history is an inspiration for the AU community and changemakers everywhere,” Burwell said.
The Cyrus A. Ansary Medal is awarded to members of the American University community who have displayed extraordinary commitment and leadership, both within the university and within their professions, and who have significant accomplishments, either in service to the university or for the benefit of the community at large. Cyrus A. Ansary has made a marked imprint on American University – as an extraordinary student, a loyal alumnus, a dedicated member of the Board of Trustees and chairman emeritus, and a wise and committed Chairman of the Board. The Ansary Medal has been awarded annually since 1990.
On the future of the Smithsonian, Bunch said, “The Smithsonian will continue to expand its ability to be inclusive, to make sure it reflects America and models the behavior that we want for America.”
On leadership amid a pandemic, he said, “We have to be more nimble, more flexible,…recognize this is a moment where rather than figure out how do I get through this, we should be thinking about how do we reimagine ourselves? How do we reimagine our institutions?”
Before his appointment as director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Bunch served as the president of the Chicago Historical Society (2001–2005). A widely published author, Bunch has written on topics ranging from the black military experience, the American presidency and all-black towns in the American West to diversity in museum management and the impact of funding and politics on American museums. 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 making of the museum.
In 2016, Bunch sat down with former AU President Neil Kerwin and discussed history, race, and his role as the NMAAHC’s founding director. He reflected on his time at AU.
"I would not be in this position if it wasn't for AU," he said. "I was very fortunate to work with people … who both challenged and nurtured me. And what AU did for me was help bring a sense of order and structure to somebody who just loved history and didn't really know what you could do with it and how to use it."