May 28 (UPI) -- The Smithsonian said Tuesday that Lonnie Bunch, founder of its African-American history and culture wing, will become the institute's first black secretary.
The Smithsonian Institution's Board of Regents elected Bunch as the institution's 14th secretary in its 173-year history, effective June 16, the institution announced Tuesday. He will oversee 19 museums, 21 libraries, the National Zoo, nine research centers and several education units and centers.
His election marks the first time an African American has been chosen to lead the Smithsonian and the first time a historian has been elected secretary.
Bunch, who has decades of experience in the museum field and is regarded as one of the nation's leading historians, is also the first museum director to become secretary in 74 years.
"I am humbled and honored to become the 14th secretary of the the Smithsonian Institution," Bunch said. "I am excited to work with the Board of Regents and my colleagues throughout the institution to build upon its legacy and to ensure that the Smithsonian will be even more relevant and more meaningful and reach more people in the future."
Bunch is the founding director of Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in September 2016, and in this role he has "guided from concept to completion, the complex effort to build the premier museum celebrating African American achievements," said John G. Roberts, Jr., Smithsonian chancellor and chief justice of the United States.
President George W. Bush and Congress authorized the establishment of the museum in 2003.
Bunch succeeds David Skorton, a board-certified cardiologist who is leaving the Smithsonian to take a position as president and CEO of the Association of American Medical Colleges.
"This is a great moment for America," said Kinshasa Holman Conwill, the African American museum's deputy director. "It's really the validation of the concept of what it means to achieve in this country. But the main thing is that this is one of the most distinguished historians on the planet. It's a great moment for the humanities because for someone steeped in history to run this institution, it's so exciting. It's hard from me to put in words. There's no one on earth I admire more."
Bunch was born in Newark, N.J., in 1952 and attended Washington, D.C.'s historically black Howard University before transferring to American University to earn bachelor's and master's degrees in American history and African history. He also has honorary degrees from some Ivy League universities.
During his tenure, the museum welcomed more than 5.5 million visitors, raised $453 million, published 22 books, provided 119 public programs and reached millions online.
Spencer Crew will serve as the museum's interim director, bringing with him nearly four decades of experience as curator, scholar and director. He was a guest curator for the museum's segregation exhibition and former director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
Crew is a history professor at George Mason University.