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National Museum of African Art

Founded by the diplomat and educator Warren Robbins in 1964, the National Museum of African Art has collections of both traditional and contemporary African art. The museum is also a center for public education, with the mission of fostering cross-cultural relations while honoring African arts and culture.

We want to show the rich creative heritage of Africa, and to underscore the implications of this heritage in America’s quest for interracial understanding. We want to be a museum that communicates.

Warren Murray Robbins

Warren Murray Robbins (1923–2008) was not immensely wealthy, had not been to Africa, and had no experience running museums or formal training in art history prior to the 1960s. However, in 1964, by leveraging his diplomatic experience and passion for African art and culture, he founded the Museum of African Art, which he initially privately managed as he sought additional funding. In 1966, the museum established the Frederick Douglass Institute of Negro Arts and History, the museum’s educational arm. Both the museum and the institute were housed in Northeast Washington, D.C., in a townhouse that had been the home of the abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass in the 1870s.David A. Binkley et al., “Building a National Collection of African Art: The Life History of a Museum,” in Representing Africa in American Art Collections: A Century of Collecting and Display, ed. Kathleen Bickford Berzock, and Christa Clarke (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011), 265. When the collection became part of the Smithsonian Institution in 1979, it was renamed the National Museum of African Art. Robbins was its first director until 1983.

Robbins was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, on September 4, 1923, the youngest of eleven children born to Jewish immigrants from Ukraine. As an adult, he explained that his Jewish identity allowed him to relate to the struggle for civil rights in America, based on “the historical ties between the Jewish and Black people in their common centuries-long quest for justice.”Warren M. Robbins, Speaking of Introductions: Vignettes of a Cultural Pioneer; A Journey through Four Careers and Three Continents (Washington, D.C.: Robbins Center for Cross Cultural Communication, 2005), 56.

During his childhood, he became fascinated by the geometric shapes of the tiling in the family bathroom. He ascribed his later appreciation for the work of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian to this initial contact with the tile shapes. His love for some designs in African art also grew out of this love for geometric shapes; he later wrote: “I was instantaneously attracted to the black and white checkerboard patterns of certain African textiles from Mali or the painted superstructures of heraldic masks from Upper Volta.”Ibid., 6. Indeed, Robbins’s admiration for both Western modern art and African art forms motivated him to demonstrate the connections between the two; he would later argue for the influence of African sculptural forms on the paintings of Picasso.Ibid., 24. His home on Capitol Hill featured a gallery in which he displayed Mondrian’s work alongside traditional African sculptures.Ibid., 7.

Warren M. Robbins Warren M. Robbins. Photo: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.

Collector’s Adult Life

In the 1950s and 1960s, Robbins worked in Germany and Austria as a diplomat and teacher, gaining experience in cross-cultural relations.Ibid., 238. His connections to the Foreign Service later proved helpful for increasing the collection of the museum, as it received gifts from collectors and American officials stationed in Africa. These gifts included several objects that were not commonly collected at the time and contributed to the eclectic nature of the collection.

In Germany, Robbins’s interest in African art was greatly heightened by Life magazine photographer Eliot Elisofon’s 1962 book, The Sculpture of Africa. At that time, Robbins described it as “the most extensive and most important photo survey of African art that had ever been published.”Ibid., 73. Elisofon would later leave his vast collection of photographs to the museum. Robbins would later publish his own book, African Art in American Collections, in 1966.Philip Stanford, “Love Not All Requited: Warren Robbins and the Museum of African Art,” Washington Post, March 9, 1969.

Robbins and President Johnson Warren M. Robbins presenting President Lyndon Johnson with a copy of his book, African Art in American Collections, 1964. Photo: Ronald Siff Collection, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.

The Museum at the Frederick Douglass House (1963–1979)

Robbins began to develop the idea for an African art museum while he was working in Germany.Ibid. He resigned from the State Department in 1962 and, one year later, founded the Center for Cross-Cultural Communication in Washington, D.C. Its first major project was to raise funds to open a museum of African art.Stephen Rosoff, “The Collector,” Michigan Alumnus (January/February 1992): 28. Robbins “bought a second-hand IBM,”Stanford, “Love Not All Requited.” hired a small staff, and worked out of his basement, making calls and writing to potential patrons. In 1964, he took out a mortgage to purchase the former home of Frederick Douglass, located behind the Supreme Court building, and established the Frederick Douglass Institute of Negro Arts and History, which was dedicated on September 21. The museum and institute had the mission of sponsoring exhibits and lectures on the contributions of African and African American people in the United States.Penelope Lemov and Gail Werner, “African Art Museum and Douglass Institute Are Booming,” New York Times, June 29, 1969; Eden Orelove, “Happy Birthday Frederick Douglass!: A Commemorative Blog from the National Museum of African Art,” Smithsonian Collections Blog, February 14, 2008.

Frederick Douglass and family in front of Capitol Hill residence, circa 1870s. Photo: Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Robbins did not work alone. He used his diplomatic experience and personal network of artists, politicians, and collectors to elevate the stature of the museum. Its first board members included Frances Humphrey Howard, sister of Vice President Hubert Humphrey; the writers Ralph Ellison and Saul Bellow; Senator S. I. Hayakawa, whom Robbins had met during his time as a diplomat; and Robbins’s first cousin, the journalist and media personality Mike Wallace.Rosoff, “Collector,” 28. Hubert Humphrey, the lead author of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, would later be instrumental in helping the museum become part of the Smithsonian Institution by an act of Congress in August 1979.Robbins, Speaking of Introductions, 99.

Robbins wrote about his main goals for the museum in a 1969 article: “We want to show the rich creative heritage of Africa, and to underscore the implications of this heritage in America’s quest for interracial understanding. We want to be a museum that communicates.”Quoted in Binkley et al, “Building a National Collection,” 265. He stated his belief that “the widespread myth that the Negro American has no past other than slavery and savagery has constituted one of the most tragic and unnecessary stumbling blocks to his thinking about himself . . . [and] a source of racial prejudice.”Benji J. O. Anosike, “Africa and Afro-Americans: The Bases for Greater Understanding and Solidarity,” Journal of Negro Education 51, no. 4 (1982): 434.

To that end, he set out to make the museum a symbol of black cultural pride and a tool to educate people about African art. The staff were members of the local community with varying degrees of familiarity with art history and museums.Binkley et al., “Building a National Collection,” 266. Ric Simmons, the museum’s property manager in the 1970s, recalls that “the place was part of the community” and that Robbins hired people “to bring African Art to life.”Richard, “Double Vision.” There was significant engagement from the black community. The Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes sent his poem “Frederick Douglass” to Robbins to be used as a statement for the museum.Robbins, Speaking of Introductions, 103.

Robbins envisioned the Frederick Douglass Institute of Negro Arts and History/Museum of African Art as not just an art museum, but as an educational institution.Ibid., 187.  In the early years, many visitors were school children and, by 1978, the museum had refurbished a school bus for educational trips.Binkley et al., “Building a National Collection,” 268. Robbins later stated that “the museum was no Disneyland, but children came away from it with a positive feeling about an Africa to which for the first time they could relate.”Warren M. Robbins, “Two Visions for African Art,” Washington Post, January 26, 1997,

The public did not unanimously accept Robbins’s involvement in the creation of an African art museum, with some criticizing his “handling black culture” with a “colonial mentality.” He responded to objections, stating, “I’m not doing this as a white person, but as a sponsor of an institution the city needs.”Stanford, “Love Not All Requited.” Despite these criticisms, large numbers of people continued to visit, and it remained the only museum dedicated solely to African art at the time.Lemov and Werner, “African Art Museum.” Noted philanthropists in Washington, D.C., also supported the museum. In 1970, David Lloyd Kreeger, the philanthropist and art collector, donated money for a large-scale expansion of the museum, which the black architect Robert Nash was commissioned to complete.Bart Barnes, “Architect Robert Johnson Nash, 70; Designed Churches, Public Buildings,” Washington Post, December 9, 1999,

Despite Robbins’s comparative lack of wealth and formal training, the Frederick Douglass Institute/Museum of African Art grew to occupy eight adjacent townhouses and to have a collection of over five thousand works.Interview with Christine Kreamer, Deputy Director and Chief Curator, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, by Mofeyifoluwa Edun, January 11, 2018. Before joining the Smithsonian, the museum had a thirty-five-person staff and a flexible administrative structure comprising an advisory board that included Saul Bellow, D.C. mayor Walter Washington, and Eliot Elisofon.Rosoff, “Collector,” 30; Binkley et al., “Building a National Collection,” 266. Robbins spent much of his own savings establishing the museum, but he eventually raised $5.5 million, allowing the museum to run on an operating budget of $800,000.Stanford, “Love Not All Requited”; Rosoff, “Collector,” 30. Some of this money came from foundations, such as the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations.Stanford, “Love Not All Requited.” In 1969, the museum also received a  bequest of African art from Mildred Barnes Bliss, who, along with her husband, Robert Woods Bliss, had founded the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection.Binkley et al. “Building a National Collection,” 267.

Joining the Smithsonian

As the museum grew, Robbins sought to ensure its longevity. In 1974, Robbins proposed that the museum become part of the Smithsonian Institution, believing that such a move would provide access to the resources it needed to become a preeminent institution for the study of African art.Binkley et al., “Building a National Collection,” 269. This was at a time when the Smithsonian was also absorbing institutions such as the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Robbins’s museum was made part of the Smithsonian in 1979 and was renamed the National Museum of African Art in 1981.“National Museum of African Art,” Smithsonian Institution Archives, April 14, 2011, The new location on the National Mall opened to the public on September 28, 1987.Ibid. Compared to the $5.5 million Robbins had been able to raise for the Frederick Douglass Institute/Museum of African Art, the new building cost $73 million and had five times the exhibition space.Michael Brenson, “Beneath Smithsonian, Debut for 2 Museums,” New York Times, September 8, 1987, The Smithsonian funding allowed the museum to pursue more ambitious exhibitions, acquire rare and unique works, and absorb major private collections, including an important collection of ceramics from central Africa.Binkley et al., “Building a National Collection,” 271. In the end, however, Robbins was disappointed in the “unselfconscious elitism” he saw creeping in.Robbins, “Two Visions for African Art.” The museum, he felt, had “lost its soul.”Richard, “Double Vision.”

Twins Seven Seven, The Lazy Hunters, and the Poisonous Wrestlers, Lizard Ghost and the Cobra, 1967. Photo: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

It was as a part of the Smithsonian that the museum first developed clear institutional guidelines for collecting modern and contemporary African art. This institutional directive helped to set the museum up to become one of the foremost museums of contemporary African art, as well as one of few museums that exhibit both traditional and contemporary African art.Binkley et al., “Building a National Collection,” 275.

Bruce Onobrakpeya, Ibiebe ABC III, 1932. Photo: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

However, the Smithsonian museum also continued traditions initially established by Robbins. These included the “focus gallery” approach, encouraging visitors to engage deeply with one particular work, and the “comparative gallery” approach, showcasing the influence of African art forms on Western art movements.Ibid., 273. One exhibition curated by Lydia Pucinelli, who would later become Robbins’s wife,Joe Holley, “Museum of African Art Founder Warren Robbins [Correction 12/22/08],” Washington Post, December 5, 2008, used the furniture of Pierre-Emile LeGrain to demonstrate the significant influence of African forms and patterns on the Art Deco movement.Binkley et al., “Building a National Collection,” 273. The new museum also continued to pursue Robbins’s goal of demonstrating the influence of African culture on the Western world and is credited with being one of the first U.S. art museums to start a diversity initiative.“Fostering Diversity in Art,” Smithsonian Campaign, National Museum of African Art, accessed February 23, 2018,; “Johnnetta Betsch Cole Fund for the Future,” National Museum of African Art, accessed February 3, 2018,


Warren M. Robbins created the nation’s first African art museum not only to showcase African artworks, but also “to foster cross cultural communications between people through education in the arts of Africa.”“A Personal Invitation from NMAfA Director Johnnetta B. Cole,” National Museum of African Art, May 21, 2014, He thereby created an institution that was both a public art museum and an educational center that helped to further interracial understanding in America. Today, the National Museum of African Art distinguishes itself as the first museum in the United States to include in its mission a sustained focus on both traditional and contemporary African art. And as a direct result of Robbins’s vision and the Smithsonian’s stewardship of both his museum and his educational outreach and public programs, the museum has expanded the parameters of African art history and preserved for the public good the rich diversity of African artistic and cultural traditions.

Profile by Mofeyifoluwa Edun, 2018 Wintersession student, and Faye Yan Zhang, 2017–2018 Dumbarton Oaks Humanities Fellow.