Bunch has not shied away from controversy, either.
Last year, the museum took on an American icon, Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and a slave owner. The exhibit, Slavery at Jeffersons Monticello: Paradox of Liberty, was on display at the museums temporary site at the American History Museum. Its now at the Atlanta History Center until July, when it moves to the Missouri History Center in St. Louis.
You have to create the sense that this is about people, that there is a human dimension to the institution of slavery, said Bunch, whose fathers great-grandmother had been a slave. You have to tell the unvarnished truth, the pain as well as resiliency. Slavery shaped politics. Slavery shaped industrial growth. Slavery shaped our culture. Slavery had a ripple in all aspects of America.
The Emancipation Proclamation, which abolished slavery in the Confederate states, plays a prominent role in the museums offerings. On view through Sept. 15 at the museums temporary site is an exhibit on the 150th anniversary of the life-changing document, juxtaposed with the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.s March on Washington, which helped propel the civil rights movement.
The museums collection will also include 3-inch-by-2-inch copies of the proclamation that were printed to go into the backpack of every Union soldier. And there is the inkwell that President Abraham Lincoln used in June 1862 to write the first draft of his famous order.
The inkwell sat on a desk in the telegraph office inside the War Department, where the president would stop by to get news about the Union forces, a scene depicted in the recent acclaimed film Lincoln.
The 16th president, said Harry Rubenstein, chair and curator of political history at the American History Museum, had many forces to deal with as he struggled with the Emancipation Proclamation, including the economic power of the slave states and political pressure from the North.
There was this realization that slavery would have to be dealt with, Rubenstein said.
The museum also pays its respects to former slave, author and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who founded an abolitionist newspaper, the North Star, and spoke and wrote extensively against the bondage of blacks. The collection includes Douglass slave narrative, a written account of his life as a slave in Maryland.
Steeped as he has been in developing the collection, Rex Ellis, the associate director for curatorial affairs, said a particular image has stayed with him that fuels his drive to make the museum capture a place in time and keep it in the nations collective memory.
Once on a trip to South Carolinas Lowcountry, the states southern coastal region, as he stared at the miles and miles of marshes, Ellis thought about the slaves, including children, who stood in that water picking rice for the plantation owners. When alligators and snakes came floating toward them, they had nowhere to go.
It was a big contributor to the infant mortality rate among slaves in the region, he said.
It takes you back, Ellis said. I wish I could find a way to have my audience experience it. Thats the challenge: How can you tell a story of humanity, of resistance, of faith?