In the Washington Post early last November, there was a review of an exhibit of a private African-American art collection. The exhibit was at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art on the National Mall and the reviewer, Philip Kennicott, noted that the show was planned “to celebrate the 50th anniversary of what was once called the Museum of African Art.” That “independent museum on Capitol Hill,” as Kennicott later described MAA, was started by Warren Robbins, a man who had my father’s job at the U.S. Embassy in Bonn, West Germany, a few incumbents before Dad was there. (The post had been Cultural Affairs Officer, often unofficially called the cultural attaché. Robbins had the job from 1958 to 1960; Dad had held the post from 1965 to 1967.)
When Robbins (1923-2008) and Dad were introduced at a party, Robbins had already bought the townhouse on A Street SE that had belonged to Frederick Douglass, a former slave who became an adviser to Pres. Abraham Lincoln. When the property had just come on the market a few years earlier, he was afraid that the historic house, which had been Douglass’s residence from 1871 to 1877, his first home in Washington, would be developed and lost. Robbins had family money, but at the time he bought the townhouse, he had no idea what he would do with it; he only knew he wanted to preserve it.
That’s when the former Foreign Service Officer learned that there weren’t any museums in the U.S. that focused specifically on African art (as distinguished from African artifacts and cultural/sociological objects), so that’s what he decided to use the house for. Robbins had been collecting African art since the 1950s when he bought one piece on impulse and he wanted to introduce this unexplored but important creative wealth to American museum-goers who heretofore had only seen African art in collections at natural history museums or museums of ethnography where the emphasis wasn’t on its aesthetics. As Robbins points out, it was largely private collectors who played an “important role” in “the universal appreciation of Africa’s creative tradition” and “its preservation as a resource for posterity.” (Indeed, in addition to Robbins himself, two private collectors played significant parts in the very success of the Museum of African Art: Eliot Elisofon and Gaston de Havenon, about which you’ll hear more shortly.)
When my dad came along, sometime around 1967 or ’68, having just resigned from the U.S. Information Agency, then the cultural propaganda outlet of our diplomatic service, Robbins asked him if he’d like to join up, and Dad became the unpaid Director of Development for the new Museum of African Art. (My father wasn’t entirely inexperienced in the world of art, though he had no background in African culture. In the late 1950s, he’d bought a part-ownership in a small modern art gallery in Washington, the Gres Gallery, which I’ve mentioned once or twice on ROT.) Fifteen years after starting MAA, Robbins (with some input from Dad) engineered the take-over by the Smithsonian of the small, but by then prominent, museum, which had by that time expanded, with the help of a Ford Foundation grant, into the neighboring townhouses.
So, you see that I have something of a personal connection to NMAfA. I even went to the reopening gala, after the MAA expansion was completed, in May 1971 as the escort of Muriel Humphrey (1912-98), the wife of Senator-Vice President-Senator Hubert Humphrey (1911-78), who was a member of the museum’s national council. I was in the army, assigned to the now-decommissioned Fort Holabird in Baltimore at the time, and I wore my dress blues to the semi-formal event. A few years later, on my mother’s 50th birthday, my father threw her a big party in the museum, the guests socializing and dining amidst the art on exhibit. (I was unable to attend this celebration because I was stationed in West Berlin by then. I sent Mom 50 red roses at the party in my absence.) Therefore, I decided, on the basis of this link and the interest in African art engendered by my parents’ association with the original private Museum of African Art, to compile a brief history of what is now the National Museum of African Art.
In 1871, the renowned abolitionist, orator, and writer Frederick Douglass (1818-95), born into slavery from which he escaped in 1838, bought his first home in Washington, D.C., at 316 A Street, S.E., on Capitol Hill. Two years later, Douglass purchased the attached house at 318; he lived and worked in the home until 1878, when he moved to Anacostia (now the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, administered by the National Park Service), though the Douglass family maintained ownership of the property until the 1920s. The combined houses remained in private hands until 1964, when Warren Robbins bought them and established the private Museum of African Art and opened the property to the public.
Robbins had started collecting African art while on a trip to Hamburg, West Germany, when he was Cultural Affairs Officer in Bonn, sometime in the late 1950s. On an impulse, he spent $15 for a wooden Yoruba statue (Nigeria) in an antique shop. A year later, once again in Hamburg, he paid $1,000 for 32 African masks, textiles, and other objects, and thus began his association with the art of Africa. His collection attracted attention when he returned to Washington and decorated his home with the pieces and people, sometimes complete strangers, began coming by to see them. To accommodate the growing curiosity, Robbins, who’d as yet never been to Africa, created an informal museum in the basement of his home as a way “of improving communications between cultural and racial groups,” as he later stated his goal.
In 1963, he raised $13,000 and took out a $35,000 mortgage to buy the townhouse at 316 A Street, S.E., half of Douglass’s Capitol Hill residence. The newly-minted museum director opened his display to the public in June 1964, establishing the first museum in the U.S. dedicated to African art. Almost immediately, nearly 200 works were pledged at gifts or loans to the nascent museum. For the opening, Robbins’s own art was supplemented by loans from Eliot Elisofon (1911-73), a photographer and photojournalist for Life magazine with an esteemed private collection of African art, and items borrowed from the University of Pennsylvania Museum. The museum’s mission, the new director said, was to introduce “the cultural heritage of the Negro people, known mainly in academic circles, to the attention of the general public.” In 1966, Robbins launched the Frederick Douglass Institute of Negro Arts and History, the museum’s educational arm, and began raising additional funds to purchase the other half of the structure. The collection was now officially named the Museum of African Art. In addition to never having visited the continent, the former Foreign Service Officer had also never before worked in a museum, never been involved with the arts, and never raised money.
Included in the display of masks, sculptures, carvings, bronze and iron castings, decorative items, textiles, and ceremonial objects, MAA had a gallery devoted to musical instruments. Recorded drums, recreating the sounds of eight different kinds of drumming—from the kind that sends messages to the kind that accompanies important ceremonies—filled the air of the museum as in a second-floor gallery could be seen a Nigerian raft zither, an Ethiopian lyre, and a leg rattle from Malawi. Along with the weapons, household items, and masks, all the objects on exhibit at MAA were displayed to emphasize their aesthetic properties—that is, the visual beauty of their form and decoration—without overlooking their sociological and spiritual import. As the museum itself phrased it: “Today the art of Africa takes its rightful place beside the other great art traditions of the world . . . .” In the original museum setting (before the million-dollar reconstruction), exhibits sat on rough wood flooring surrounded by tropical plants and wall hangings were displayed against clay, ivory, terracotta, or ebony-colored backgrounds. (This tactic was clearly a replication of the theatrical setting that Warren Robbins used in his home museum before the formal foundation of MAA, when he adorned his rooms with tropical plants to suggest the African jungle.)
In addition to its principal exhibits, the art of the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa, MAA maintained two permanent displays that related to its origins and core mission. One was a recreation of the study Frederick Douglass used in his home in the 1870s, furnished with genuine objects, such as his desk (a gift from Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1811-96, prominent abolitionist and author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and personal effects (including his typewriter), or period-appropriate antiques based on the original furnishings. On the walls of the study were pages from The North Star, the anti-slavery newspaper Douglass published (1847-51); photos of Douglass in his many public activities; and examples of the many letters he wrote to prominent and important correspondents.
Nearby was a gallery that displayed reproductions of modern Western art that showed the influence of African motifs with the African art object that inspired it, such as Paul Klee’s Senecio (1922) shown with an Ashanti fertility doll (Ghana). Other famous European and American artists in this display included Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, Alexander Calder, and several German Expressionist painters. Even though the Western art in the gallery wasn’t original—real pieces would have made this exhibit fantastic—the gallery was a source of fascination for me, a novice in African art like most Americans and Europeans at the time, and it informed my view of modern European and American art ever after. (I later went to an exhibit at the Phillips Collection, Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens—see “Art in D.C. (Dec. ’09-Jan. ’10)” on ROT, 18 January 2010—that showed the influence of this same culture on the Euro-American photographers of the 1910s and ’20s, the era in which the cognoscenti “discovered” African art. I’d already learned where some of the striking images of our artistic heritage had come from and approached this exhibit already a little in the know, as it were.)
In 1967, the Ford Foundation awarded the museum a $250,000, three-year grant, to be matched with funds raised form other donors. By this time, MAA’s holdings included 300 art objects and the grant was intended to support the Douglass Institute’s efforts to create traveling exhibits, lectures, publications, audio-visual materials, and expanded educational programs. By 1969, the New York Times reported “increased attendance and activity” at the five-year-old museum, “with weekly figures up 33 per cent.” In April 1970, MAA closed for a major expansion and refurbishment project which would eventually double the museum’s space. Funded largely by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities ($1 million) and the Ford Foundation ($300,000), with smaller contributions by other donors (including $40,000 from Washington philanthropist David Lloyd Kreeger, a significant supporter of the arts in the Capital, for whom the new extension was named), the remodeling was designed to unify the combined structures added over the museum’s seven-year lifetime.
The initial plans for the MAA didn’t include exhibits of African-American artists, though temporary shows were devoted to them. Part of the purpose of the expansion was to afford space and financing to include black American art as an integral part of the museum’s permanent collection. (The Smithsonian’s museum doesn’t incorporate African-American art as part of its principal mission, probably on the argument that a National Museum of African American History and Culture, officially established in 2003, is in the planning stages.)
The museum reopened in May 1971 (with the gala that I attended with Muriel Humphrey), almost exactly seven years after it first opened its doors, featuring an exhibit of items from the magnificent private collection of Gaston de Havenon, shown in public for the first time. (You can take my word for that apparent hyperbole: I saw it—I still have the catalogue—and was thoroughly knocked out. If anyone still believes that African art has little aesthetic appeal and is only useful as sociological or anthropological artifacts, then you need to find a copy of this catalogue somewhere—The deHavenon Collection [Museum of African Art, 1971]—and look through it.) Some of the most beautiful and stunning pieces of art, drawn from the cultures of West Africa, were on display; de Havenon (1904-93), an art dealer and collector, acquired some of the most sublime examples of sub-Saharan creativity I’ve seen anywhere even since that introduction.
The art of Africa, like that of Native Americans, Australia, and other non-Western cultures, used to be called “primitive”; there even used to be a Museum of Primitive Art in New York City. That term implied a lack of sophistication and aesthetic values, the tinkerings of childlike peoples. The implicit insult aside, the term was just inaccurate. One look at the objects on display at the Museum of African Art (and its successor beneath the Mall), not to mention the art museums that today have all established sections devoted to African art, will disabuse anyone of the thought that this creative work is anything less than aesthetically sophisticated and artistically refined. The term of art today is “naïve” art, an attempt to describe its origins as untaught and traditional—which is not the same as unrefined or artless. (This is also inaccurate, since the artists are only “untaught” in the sense that they weren’t trained in Western-style art academies or conservatories. Traditional artists are, indeed, taught their art, but at the knees of their predecessors. Each generation of artists is trained in the techniques and styles of its culture by those who practiced the art before.) One glance at a Bambara antelope headdress from Mali, a BaKota reliquary figure from Gabon, or an Ashanti fertility doll from Ghana will prove that conclusively.
This is not the place for a disquisition on African art, but a few things should be noted, as they affect the notion of an art museum devoted to its display. First, unlike modern Western art, African art isn’t primarily decorative. While many African cultures have extensive decorative traditions (unlike, say, the Inuit, who traveled light and had little time for or interest in decoration), almost everything Africans created was for use—if not ceremonial and religious, then practical and domestic. The beauty of the objects, though inarguably important, is secondary to the main purpose for the object’s creation. When we see such an art object in a museum, we’re seeing it out of context since its original intended setting is a great part of its meaning to it creators. That, of course, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t appreciate the aesthetic appeal of the art; but we should acknowledge its greater import. Furthermore, because African artworks are made for use, they’re never pristine and seldom very old—because most African works of art get used up over time. (This phenomenon is furthered by the fact that African traditional art objects are created from organic materials, such as wood, grass, skins, and natural fabrics, that deteriorate in time (with the uncommon exceptions of bronze and iron sculpture). An advantage of this artistic tradition is that work done today is very similar to that done decades and even centuries ago—but as outsiders to the cultures in which these pieces are created, we have to be very careful about the ways we look at them, understand them, and appreciate them in a museum display—not to mention how we acquire them.
By 1973, the year Robbins made his first visit to Africa, MAA included 12 exhibition galleries, an auditorium, and a library; held 5,000 objects; and had a staff of 20 (one of whom, by then, was my father). Eventually, the museum grew to comprise adjoining buildings, ultimately including nine townhouses, 16 garages, and two carriage houses.
(Robbins had raised money, reportedly $25,000, to buy a beaded icon called Afo-A-Kom back from a Manhattan art gallery. The West African Kom people considered the century-old figure sacred; it had been stolen from a hill-top village in Cameroon in 1966 and the New York Times located it at the New York gallery, where it was for sale (for a reported $60-65,000). Robbins led a delegation to bring the statue back to its home, where he was greeted by Nsom Nggue, then fon, or king, of the Kom people, and welcomed enthusiastically by a pageant of men and women in tribal dress.)
As early as 1966, the New York Times had pronounced MAA, “a tiny but excellent” museum. In the ensuing years, Robbins’s museum gained considerable prominence, as attested to by visits from celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor and Muhammad Ali. Washington Mayor Marion Barry (1979-91; 1995-99)—who died at 78 last 23 November—even married his third wife in the museum in 1978.) In 1976, Robbins began a campaign to get the Smithsonian Institution to absorb the Museum of African Art. He lobbied friends in Congress and in October 1978, the legislature voted to authorize the acquisition. S. Dillon Ripley, Secretary of the Smithsonian, announced the take-over in August 1979; MAA was officially renamed the National Museum of African Art in 1981. By that time, MAA owned 8,500 African sculptures, 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; and had an annual budget of $900,000. Robbins became the National Museum of African Art’s first director, remaining in that position until 1983, when he became Director Emeritus and a Senior Scholar at the Smithsonian.
(When Robbins deeded the museum, its property, and its holdings to the Smithsonian Institution in 1979, the Institution ran it for seven years. Then, to support the construction of the new building on the Mall, the Capitol Hill property was sold in 1986. The Capitol Hill site was purchased by the National Association for Home Care (NAHC), which operates the Caring Institute. NAHC restored the property to the condition it was in in 1871-77 in 1990 and 1993 and opened the current Frederick Douglass Museum and Hall of Fame for Caring Americans on the property. The museum is open to the public.)
NMAfA opened Ethiopia: The Christian Art of an African Nation in 1984, its last exhibit at the Frederick Douglass House, and in 1987, NMAfA was relocated to a new, subterranean building on the Mall behind James Renwick’s red sandstone Castle, the Smithsonian’s historic original building on Independence Avenue. (The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery for Asian art, NMAfA’s next-door neighbor, is likewise mostly below ground. The Sackler contains art of North Africa, as well as the Middle East and Asia.) Congress appropriated $960,000 for the two new museums and ground was broken, with Vice Pres. George H. W. Bush officiating, on 21 June 1983. Designed by architect Jean Paul Carlhian of the Boston firm Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson and Abbott, the four-story structure is 96% below ground, with the four-acre Enid A. Haupt Garden as its roof; only the single-story, domed entrance pavilion, 35 feet high by 90 feet long, with the admissions counter, info desk, and elevators to the exhibit floors, is at ground level. (The Sackler’s entry is topped with pyramids.) Based on an overall concept by Japanese architect Junzo Yoshimura, Carlhian’s $75 million, 370,000 square-foot design for the twin museums, Ripley’s last big project before his retirement in September 1984, incorporates geometric forms which are meant to provide a unity of the project to existing Smithsonian buildings: the Smithsonian Institution Building (the Castle), the Arts and Industries Building, and the Freer Gallery of Art. According to a Smithsonian website,
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 NMAfA is constructed principally of red granite with a motif of circles reflected in its domed roof, round windows, curved stairways, and arched doorways. (The Sackler, continuing the variation of a classical theme, is of grayish-tan granite and uses a diamond shape as its architectural motif. The two museums are connected underground by a corridor or concourse that also contains offices and classrooms for various Smithsonian programs.)
The new museum, with five times the space of MAA’s Capitol Hill home, was opened in September and that same month an anonymous donor gave NMAfA a gift of $200,000, in recognition of which the museum renamed its library the Warren M. Robbins Library, the world’s principal resource center for the research and study of the visual arts of Africa. The new museum has 68,800 square feet of space, of which 22,000 square feet are exhibition galleries. The main exhibition spaces are on the first and second floors below ground, with six galleries, a lecture hall, the Warren Library, the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives (containing over 350,000 items), the museum workshop, the museum store, and NMAfA admin offices. On Sublevel 3 is another exhibition space for displays of special selections from the collection and the other Smithsonian offices and classrooms, plus the entrance to the concourse to the other buildings. Some of the galleries are devoted to permanent displays, including the 525-object Disney-Tishman African Art Collection, a 2005 gift of unique and rare pieces from the Walt Disney World Company to NMAfA.
Continuing installations, which rotate works from the museum’s permanent collection, span the cultures and forms of the continent below the Sahara. Some exhibits explore a particular region, such as the lesser-known works from Sierra Leone and Liberia, the art of Benin, the pottery of Central Africa, and the archaeology of the ancient Nubian city of Kerma, as well as ceramics, small stone figures from the 15th to the 18th centuries, and the artistry of everyday objects. NMAfA’s focus also covers contemporary art from the continent, such as Senegalese artist Ousmane Sow’s Toussaint Louverture et La Vieille Esclave (1989), a mixed-media sculpture of Haiti’s18th-century liberator. The museum’s educational projects for both children and adults include films with contemporary perspectives on African life and storytelling programs, as well as lectures, public discussions, and musical performances. The practical workshops, such as traditional basket-weaving, bring Africa’s oral and cultural traditions to life along with demonstrations by African and African-American artists.
By the time Warren Robbins died at 85 (of complications from a fall at his home), NMAfA held over 9,000 art objects from the continent of Africa and 30,000 books on African art, culture, and history. As of 2009, the National Museum of African Art’s yearly budget was $6 million and its current collection, the largest public holding of contemporary African art in the United States, comprises 12,000 items. In June, NMAfA marked its 50th anniversary, commemorating the day in 1964 that Warren Robbins opened the doors to the Frederick Douglass townhouse that had become the Museum of African Art.
[The National Museum of African Art, the United States’ only museum dedicated to the collection, conservation, study, and exhibition of traditional and contemporary African art, is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed 25 December). Admission is free. NMAfA is located at 950 Independence Avenue, S.W., near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines. For more information about the exhibitions and the museum, call (202) 633-4600 or visit the museum’s website, http://africa.si.edu; for general Smithsonian information, call (202) 633-1000.
[I said above that I had a personal connection, through my father, to the original Museum of African Art. Between gifts from my folks, early inheritances, and my own acquisitions, my own small art collection includes a few pieces of works from Africa, mostly purchased from MAA. Among these are a carved wooden Bamun figure of a boy from Cameroon, a Bambara “Chiwara” (female antelope headdress figure) from Mali, a stylized iron bird from the Bobo people of Burkina Faso, a carved wooden Yoruba twin figure, a Bronze Senufo equestrian figure from the Ivory Coast, and three carved wooden masks from the Senufo, Baule (Ivory Coast), and Ibibio (Nigeria) peoples.]