The Frederick Douglass House Era
In 1964, a privately funded Museum of African Art was established by Warren M. Robbins, a former American Foreign Service officer, at the Frederick Douglass House in Washington, DC. Robbins served as first director of the museum, which mounted exhibitions of traditional African artwork, and developed educational programs to foster public insight and appreciation of the cultures and artistic achievements of Africa. On October 5, 1978, the US Congress passed legislation approving the transfer of the museum to the Smithsonian. When the museum transfer was completed on August 13, 1979, its collections included some eight thousand objects of African sculpture, costumes, textiles, musical instruments, and jewelry; numerous books on African culture and history; early maps of Africa; educational materials; and photographs, slides, and film segments on African art, society, and environment bequeathed to the museum by world-renowned photographer Eliot Elisofon.
In 1981, the Museum of African Art was renamed the National Museum of African Art. In 1984, the museum opened Ethiopia: The Christian Art of an African Nation, its last exhibit at the Frederick Douglass House and in 1986, the Frederick Douglass House and adjacent properties were sold to a private organization, as the collections moved to the National Mall. On September 28, 1987, the National Museum of African Art re-opened as part of the Quadrangle complex in the South Yard behind the Smithsonian Institution Building.
Collections and Facilities
The Quadrangle Complex also houses the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and the S. Dillon Ripley International Center. The uniqueness of the complex is that 96 percent of it resides underground with the Enid A. Haupt Victorian Garden on its roof. The complex was designed by architect Jean Paul Carlhian of the Boston firm Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson and Abbott. Carlhain carried out the concept of a linked underground complex of buildings. His design incorporated geometric forms which were meant to provide a contextual unity to the project with the existing Smithsonian buildings: the Smithsonian Institution Building, the Arts and Industries Building, and the Freer Gallery of Art. The National Museum of African Art was placed adjacent to the Arts and Industries Building with circular forms derived from the semicircular arches of the Freer Gallery of Art across the way. The pink granite reflects the colors of the Smithsonian Institution Building and the Arts and Industries Building, while the gray color reflects the Freer Gallery of Art.
The National Museum of African Art’s mission is to foster the discovery and appreciation of the visual arts of Africa, the cradle of humanity. The museum also houses the Warren M. Robbins Library, the major resource center in the world for the research and study of the visual arts of Africa, with more than 32,000 volumes on African art, history and culture, and the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives.
- Chronology of the National Museum of African Art
- Bibliography of the National Museum of African Art
- Historic Images of the National Museum of African Art
- Additional Records and Collections from the National Museum of African Art
- National Museum of African Art Records from the Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Historic Image Highlights of the National Museum of African Art from the Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Additional Records and Collections of the National Museum of African Art Across the Smithsonian
Today in Smithsonian History
Did you know...
that the National Museum of African Art’s collection was amassed by Warren H. Robbins, a Foreign Service officer stationed in Africa?