History curators, by the nature of their work, spend most of their time poring over books and papers. But sometimes they venture into "the field," and sometimes the field is literally that.
Lonnie Bunch, the engaging associate director for curatorial affairs at the National Museum of American History (NMAH), wanted a slave cabin to be put up on the museum floor. And he knew just the one, in a nature preserve near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
"Well, I went down there, dressed like a good academic curator, tweed jacket, slacks, loafers, and the park ranger woman says, 'OK, we've got to go back in the swamp.' I said, 'Wait a minute.' This was right after Hurricane Hugo, you understand."
I nodded. I could see Bunch, age 45, a serious scholar, graduate of Howard and American universities, briefly a college teacher and then a historian at the National Air and Space Museum and one of the creators of the Afro-American Museum in Los Angeles--I could see him hesitating there in his collar and tie, muttering, "Wait a minute here, I'm a historian, I do research in the Library of Congress . . ."
But he followed the ranger into the woods ("What's that shaking in the bush?" "Oh that's just a wild boar, pay no 'tention") until, an hour later, they came to the cabin. There they met old Mr. Johnson, who had lived in the cabin with his grandmother, a former slave. Mr. Johnson led them all around the place. But he refused to set foot on the far side of the property. "I thought maybe there was some spirit or something and asked him why he wouldn't go there," Bunch recalls. "He said, oh no, it was no spirit, it was the rattlesnakes. I jumped two feet."
"At the last minute they decided to keep the cabin there. It was all right. We will build a cabin facade of our own that people can walk into. We'll put mannequins of children inside, so you can see how the little children lived while their parents were out in the fields."
Bunch searched the Library of Congress slave narratives for material that will tell their stories on tape when the cabin, part of "Communities in a Changing Nation: The Promise of 19th-Century America," opens in the fall. One of his favorite photographs has been blown up to life-size to form the signature of the exhibition's section about slavery.
"The story of the Amistad [Raleigh, North Carolina, and I found account books showing payments to my relatives who were sharecroppers, like $1.20 for picking 200 pounds of cotton, back in 1880."
Going through old files, Bunch tracked his ancestors to about 1800, when one of them, a slave, apparently took the plantation owner's name. "What I took from this was a new appreciation of slavery: people's ability to survive; the way they kept families together despite all efforts to split them up. What I want to have here is not just a macro sense of what slavery was like but a specific sense of individuals. I would give anything to make sure the old woman in that picture is not forgotten."
When Bunch came to NMAH, nine years ago, the new exhibition was already in the works. How it got from there to here is quite a story. "For one thing, I went to Japan often in the middle of it." What he means is that for three years he headed the huge "Smithsonian's America" show in Tokyo. "We tried hard to learn Japanese," he said casually.