Born in the Newark, New Jersey area, Lonnie G. Bunch received his bachelor's (1974) and Master's (1975) degrees from American University in Washington, D.C.
After receiving his Master's, Bunch was an Adjunct Lecturer at American University from 1976-1978. From January 1978 to May 1979 Bunch was an Education Specialist at the National Air and Space Museum. He resumed teaching at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, as an Assistant Professor of American and Afro-American History from June 1979 to August 1981. After that he was a Historian and Teacher at the Packer Collegiate Institute from September 1981 to June 1983.
Moving over to the west coast, Bunch became curator of History and Program Manager at the California Afro-American Museum in Los Angeles from 1983-1989. While at the museum, Bunch organized several award-winning exhibitions such as The Black Olympians, 1904-1984 and Black Angelenos: The Afro-American in Los Angeles, 1850-1950. In addition to his work on exhibitions, Bunch also produced several historical documentaries for public television.
In 1989 Bunch headed back east to become an Adjunct Professor of Museum Studies at George Washington University before beginning his tenure at the National Museum of American History (NMAH) in that same year. Bunch was the Senior Curator of Political History at the museum until 1992 when he became the Assistant Director for Curatorial Affairs, 1992-1994, and then Associate Director for Curatorial Affairs, 1994-2000. His tenure at NMAH saw him managing curatorial and collections management staff as well as working on major exhibitions such as The American Presidency: A Glorious Burden and Smithsonian's America: An Exhibition of American History and Culture for the American Festival Japan in 1994.
Bunch left the museum to become the president of the Chicago Historical Society (CHS) in 2001. While at CHS, Bunch led a successful capital campaign to transform the CHS in anticipation of its 150th anniversary, initiated various outreach initiatives to diverse communities around Chicago, as well as helped open numerous exhibitions.
In July 2005 Bunch came back to the Smithsonian to become the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). As director of NMAAHC, Bunch guided the museum and its staff to build the 400,000 square foot museum near the Washington Monument as well as develop a collection of some 40,000 objects that explore, document and exemplify the African American story and its influence on American and world history.
On June 16, 2019 it was announced that Bunch would be the 14th Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. He was installed as Secretary on November 1, 2019.
As an author, Bunch has written widely on topics including the black military experience, the American presidency, the African American experience in the American West, diversity in museum management, and the influence of funding and politics on American museums.
Bunch has served on the advisory boards of the American Alliance of Museums and the American Association for State and Local History. Additionally, he was appointed to the Committee for the Preservation of the White House in 2002 by President George W. Bush and reappointed by President Barack Obama in 2010.