Secretary Lonnie Bunch: Learning From Americans’ Past Ordeals

Looking to history can help find healing and hope

 Protesters in Junction City, Kansas
After George Floyd’s death, Jason Allende, 13, and his family joined protesters in Junction City, Kansas, on May 29, 2020. Doug Barrett

Even before I chose history as a profession, one of the things that drew me to the past was the clarity it provides. History can ground us, inform us, and inspire us in the face of great challenge.

We find ourselves in a period of profound social change, grappling with the dual pandemics of Covid-19 and deep-rooted racism. We find ourselves balancing unfamiliar new health guidelines with the all-too-familiar anguish of inequality and injustice. We find ourselves struggling to move forward, James Baldwin’s proverbial “people trapped in history.”

To me, one of the great strengths of the Smithsonian is that we understand that we are trapped in history only if we fail to learn from it. In the nearly 175 years since the Smithsonian was founded, we have weathered a civil war and two world wars; epidemics of influenza, typhoid, cholera and AIDS; the turmoil and transformation of the ’60s. And in each of these moments, the Smithsonian community rose to the occasion to do what we have always done: to provide expertise, insight, and hope. To serve our public.

Since 1970, Smithsonian magazine has been vital to this mission. Its goal has always been to nourish and challenge curious minds. To offer thoughtful, compelling journalism that contextualizes the current moment. Your membership, in turn, provides essential support to the Institution’s exhibitions, research, education, and outreach.

As America recovers from Covid-19, the Smithsonian continues to adapt. We are finding creative ways to engage audiences online, sharing trusted expertise to untangle our new normal, and asking Americans to confront the country’s grim racial past. Through resources like “Talking About Race” from the National Museum of African American History and Culture, we are helping audiences better understand our differences and bridge the chasm of race.

In large part, this work happens because of you. Through the building closures of the past few months, through periods of social distance and social upheaval, you have been with us every step of the way. We count on you now, as we steer a careful course toward reopening in the wake of Covid-19 and renew our service to a nation looking for healing.

In this difficult time, the Smithsonian community has been where I look to find resilience and optimism. Our staff, our volunteers, and you—our community of readers, longstanding and new—remind me every day why we continue to do what we do. Thank you.

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