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Congress presses Smithsonian director on new museums, ‘panda diplomacy’

‘We would like to have the pandas back,’ Bunch says

The Smithsonian and U.S. flags fly in front of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2019.
The Smithsonian and U.S. flags fly in front of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The head of the Smithsonian Institution came to Congress bearing an original Green Bay Packers cheesehead from the 1990s, along with a watch that once belonged to Mary Todd Lincoln and other items from the world’s largest complex of museums.

“I hope you do take some time to see these amazing artifacts,” said Secretary Lonnie Bunch III, as he testified in front of the House Administration Committee on Tuesday.

If he was trying to win over the Wisconsinite who leads the committee, it didn’t exactly work. 

“After a loss of our Green Bay Packers last night to the New York Giants, it’s a little tough to look at the cheesehead this morning, but I appreciate you being here,” said Chairman Bryan Steil.

Bunch did not avoid heated questioning from Republican members of Steil’s panel, on topics ranging from the loss of the National Zoo’s pandas to an alleged anti-conservative bias in some of the Smithsonian’s displays.

Rep. Greg Murphy, a North Carolina Republican, was among those who said the institution, which is partly taxpayer-funded, was no place for politics. Murphy complained about placards he saw during a recent trip to a Smithsonian museum that portrayed former Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan in a negative light. 

Murphy also questioned the museum’s inclusion of a document listing aspects of “white culture,” like rugged individualism and the Protestant work ethic, in an online portal on race in 2020. The document was pulled down after backlash, and the Smithsonian issued an apology.

“This is absolute, anti-racial propaganda. Why would anything like this be in the Smithsonian institute?” Murphy asked.

“I think that the document itself was wrong and flawed,” said Bunch, who leads the organization that oversees 21 museums and the National Zoo, and who was founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. “I do think, however, it’s important for the Smithsonian to help the country grapple with questions of race. So I’m not going to run away from that.”

Bunch came before the committee on the heels of an eventful year for the Smithsonian, which is developing two new museums it hopes to bring to the National Mall: the National Museum of the American Latino and the American Women’s History Museum.

Congress approved both museums in 2020, but fights over funding, location and direction of the museums have cast doubt over when they’ll open. 

A group of Latino House Republicans threatened to cut funding for the American Latino museum after taking issue with a preview exhibition housed this year in the Museum of Natural History. Critics said the exhibition portrayed Latinos as “deserters, traitors, and victims of oppression,” according to members of the Congressional Hispanic Conference.

Asked by New York Republican Rep. Anthony D’Esposito how the Smithsonian Institution would address those concerns, Bunch said the exhibition isn’t necessarily representative of the content that will be on display at the future museum. Bunch repeatedly said he is committed to creating inclusive programming based in scholarship.

Oklahoma Republican Rep. Stephanie Bice, meanwhile, blasted the Smithsonian for hosting certain LGBTQ+ events in recent years.

“How does hosting drag shows for children help the Smithsonian achieve their mission of catalyzing public engagement, sparking curiosity by learning, by connecting the knowledge, resources and expertise of the Smithsonian with a vital network of cultural and educational organizations?” Bice asked.

“That is a small part of whatever we do. And the reality is the Smithsonian is trying to make sure that it embraces the totality of who we are as Americans. But this is not a major part of what we do at all,” Bunch replied.

Democrats, too, raised some concerns about the Smithsonian. Ranking member Joseph D. Morelle, a New York Democrat, questioned Bunch on the institution’s efforts to return some of the brains it collected for study in the 1800s and 1900s, mostly from dead Black and Indigenous people.

“There aren’t words in the English language sufficient to capture just how repugnant and dehumanizing a practice this was,” Morelle said.

According to Bunch, the Smithsonian Institution recently created a Human Remains Task Force to explore how to ethically handle specimens taken without consent. Bunch has also apologized publicly for the program. 

“Like you, I was very upset when I learned about these human remains. And my goal was very quickly to really have a new policy that allows us to understand how we return remains, what kind of research we should still do,” Bunch said. 

Morelle also mourned the recent return to China of Washington’s three giant pandas, two of whom had spent decades at the National Zoo. According to Bunch, the National Zoo paid China $10 million to loan the pandas for an initial 10-year period, which was extended until its expiration this year.

Citing his own nieces and nephews, Steil said, “Kids love the pandas.”

“But as we dive in and we think about what’s called ‘panda diplomacy,’ if you will, there’s a policy side to this as well,” he added. “Has the Smithsonian ever changed or compromised any public content to appease or accommodate China or any other foreign government?”

“Definitely not,” Bunch replied.

Steil asked whether the Smithsonian was trying to renegotiate a new loan to bring pandas back to the nation’s capital.

“We would like to have the pandas back, and we would like to negotiate with the Chinese to do just that,” Bunch said.

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