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Head of the Smithsonian visits Block Museum of Art

Untold stories are at the foundation of world-changing museum exhibitions

Lonnie Bunch was on a tight schedule while in town to deliver Northwestern University’s commencement address. But the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution made time to view a groundbreaking exhibition at The Block Museum of Art — which will travel next year to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art.

Bunch, recently appointed as 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian, spoke to graduates Friday morning and received an honorary degree from the University.

On Thursday, with curator Kathleen Bickford Berzock as his guide, Bunch took in “Caravans of Gold, Fragments in Time: Art, Culture and Exchange across Medieval Saharan Africa,” an ambitious exhibition of 250 artworks and fragments on loan from partner museums and institutions in Mali, Morocco and Nigeria. “Caravans of Gold” showcases the vast reach of Saharan trade networks and Africa’s role as a global force during the Middle Ages. 

Museums are Bunch’s life work. Beginning in 2005, he directed the development and launch of the Smithsonian’s acclaimed National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016 to capacity crowds and rave reviews.

Bunch was president of the Chicago History Museum (then the Chicago Historical Society) from 2001 to 2005 during which he led a successful capital campaign for its 150th anniversary.

Bunch’s museum work in Washington, D.C., has afforded the opportunity for visitors to view African-American culture as a lens to understand what it means to be American — and The Block’s “Caravans of Gold” aims to fill in the missing narrative of Africa to provide a more comprehensive history of the world during the Middle Ages. It is fitting that the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian should be the final destination for this exhibition.

After viewing the exhibition at The Block, Bunch said he was impressed.

“I think what this exhibition does is it centralizes Africa,” he said. “It helps people understand that the trade means that we were a connected world and that Africans weren’t just recipients but were active partners in the trade. This is really cutting-edge work and I’m very excited about it.” 

Berzock and Chimamanda2
After Commencement fellow honoree Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the award-winning Nigerian-born novelist, also had an opportunity to tour the exhibition. Adichie said viewing the artworks from Nigeria was an emotional experience for her and she lauded The Block for having the courage to commit to this project.

“Caravans of Gold” runs through July 21 at The Block Museum before traveling to the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto Sept. 21, 2019, to Feb. 23, 2020, and the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institute April 8 to Nov. 29, 2020.