The National Museum of African Art began as a privately funded, modest but dynamic educational institution on Capitol Hill. It was founded in 1964 by Warren M. Robbins, a former U.S. foreign service officer, and its collecting interests were African-American and African art, history and culture. Initially it was located in the house that abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass lived in from around 1871 to 1878.
On August 13, 1979, the museum became part of the Smithsonian Institution, and its focus turned to the traditional visual arts of sub-Saharan Africa. A new facility was built on the Mall to provide adequate space for the museum's collections and activities, and opened to the public in September 1987. In 1994 the museum's mission was expanded to reflect the visual traditions, diverse cultures, and ancient and contemporary arts of the entire continent, including northern Africa.
An aggressive acquisition program, initiated in 1983, has resulted in the creation of a world-class collection that covers all aspects of pan-continental African visual arts — sculpture, painting, photography, printmaking, pottery, textiles, crafts, popular culture, architecture and archaeology.
The museum provides significant supporting facilities and materials for research. The archives, named for renowned photographer Eliot Elisofon, who created an enduring record of African life, houses more than 180,000 color transparencies and 80,000 black-and-white photographs, which document objects in the permanent collections of the museum and other repositories. There are also rare collections of original glass negatives, lantern slides, stereographs and vintage postcards. The library, a branch of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries, comprises 25,000 volumes that support research on all topics pertaining to African art, history and culture.
The museum has come to be recognized as the country's leading collecting, exhibition, research and reference center for the visual arts of Africa. Appropriately, it also contains a state-of-the-art conservation laboratory. This department serves as a national and international authority on the conservation of African art. Both the conservation and curatorial departments invite the public to bring their objects to the museum, by appointment, for identification and advice on taking care of them. The museum has also created a variety of educational programs. Through materials such as videotapes about African art and images of the museum's growing collections, the museum reaches out to teachers and students. Workshops and demonstrations by African and African-American artists engage audiences eager to meet and talk with practicing artists. Films offer contemporary perspectives on African life and art. Tours, storytelling, festivals and workshops engage both young and old through lively presentations that bring Africa's oral traditions, literature and art to life.
As the National Museum of African Art enters the new century, it seeks to improve existing programs and create new ones that will benefit the public. Supplementary funding would allow the museum to create a much needed orientation gallery, the primary objective of the museum in the forthcoming Smithsonian fundraising campaign. This gallery will provide visitors with an introduction to some of the unique aspects of African art, and increase their awareness of its presence in our everyday lives. Programs created for this facility can be redesigned in the form of videos and CD-ROMs for use as educational products and curriculum materials. Such funding would also provide seed money for traveling exhibitions that will extend the museum's reach beyond the Mall. In addition to a photography show that will be circulated by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service in 2000, exhibitions of artworks that are appropriate for a limited tour could be created and shared with institutions in underserved communities.
The permanent collection is the heart of the museum and its reason for existence. Fine quality, authentic works of art are harder to acquire because the value of African art has escalated so much during the past decade. For this reason, gifts of funds and desirable objects are welcome.
With a lot of help from our friends, the National Museum of African Art will continue to fulfill its mission to foster interest in and understanding of the diverse cultures in Africa as these are embodied in aesthetic achievements in the visual arts.
By I. Michael Heyman, Secretary