Secretary Lonnie Bunch on Why the Smithsonian Is Talking About Race

In a deeply divided moment, a new initiative aims to bring Americans together by reckoning with our racial past

An interactive lunch counter at the African American History Museum
An interactive lunch counter at the African American History Museum lets visitors grapple with moral dilemmas of the civil rights movement. NMAAHC / Eric Long

Soon after the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened, I witnessed a powerful exchange. At the casket of Emmett Till, two families of different races met and struck up a conversation. Working together, both sets of parents helped to explain to their children the meaning of his death: how the 14-year-old had been murdered, how it became a rallying cry for the civil rights movement, and why we remember his story today.

To me, this moment revealed the great strength of museums. Museums bring people of different backgrounds, experiences and beliefs together. Museums ask audiences to enter a common space and explore a common interest. Museums create informal communities of learning, helping people recognize how much we share, despite our differences, and how much those differences can help us grow.

For 175 years, the Smithsonian has embraced the notion that America’s shared past and present shape its collective future. This is especially true today. Overcoming the challenges we face as a society—climate change, the pandemic, the chasm of race—depends on communal will and joint action. And as a trusted source of information, expertise and dialogue, the Smithsonian has a unique opportunity to help.

That is why this summer the Smithsonian launched an ambitious, institution-wide initiative—Our Shared Future: Reckoning with Our Racial Past. This initiative will explore the history and legacy of race and racism through interdisciplinary scholarship, dialogue, engagement and creative partnerships. Beginning with a national summit on August 26, a series of integrated events—from conferences to town halls to immersive pop-up experiences—are designed to spark conversations nationally, regionally, locally, and among friends and family. This programming will intentionally bring together individuals who usually have little interaction and who might disagree, creating an opportunity for conflicting voices to be heard and to collaborate.

The history of race and racism affects every individual in this country. All Americans have race, culture and traditions; all Americans inherit a complex racial past and live in a world shaped by its legacy. As the great James Baldwin wrote, “History is literally present in all that we do.”

I have long believed the Smithsonian can be the glue that holds the country together, even on a topic as challenging and nuanced as race. In a divided moment, the Smithsonian can remind audiences of our shared history, heritage and hopes for the future.

The Smithsonian’s “Our Shared Future: Reckoning with Our Racial Past” initiative was developed to spark comprehensive discussion around the impact of race and racism. The initiative will feature three national summits taking place through 2021-2022 along with regional and local pop-up events, an online curriculum, educational resources and interactive dialogues on social media.

The first summit, on the topic of race and wellness, will be held on August 26 at 7 p.m. ET. Join Secretary Bunch and a panel of esteemed experts at

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