Warren M. Robbins, founder of the Museum of African Art on Capitol Hill that later evolved into the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, passed away December 4 at age 85. We here at ATM would like to take a moment to remember his extraordinary story.
It was the late 1950s when Robbins, then a cultural attaché for the State Department, bought his first piece of African art—a carved wooden figure of a Yoruba man and woman of Nigeria—in an antiques shop in Hamburg, Germany. The next year, he bought 32 other figures, masks and textiles, also in Hamburg, and by 1964, he was displaying his collection (complete with tropical plants to allude to the rainforests of Africa) in a Capitol Hill townhouse. Frederick Douglass, of all people, once owned the house.
Robbins got a considerable amount of flack for being a white man, who had never stepped foot in Africa, running a museum of art created by Africans. But he reportedly told the Washington Post, "I make no apologies for being white. You don’t have to be Chinese to appreciate ancient ceramics, and you don’t have to be a fish to be an ichthyologist."
In 1973, he finally visited Africa. (He later went back to return a stolen statue, found in a Manhattan gallery owner’s collection, to its rightful owners in Kom, a village in Cameroon.) And as his collection grew, his museum became a complex of 9 townhouses, 16 garages and 2 carriage houses.
In 1987, having surpassed 5,000 pieces, Robbins’ collection moved to its Mall location, becoming the National Museum of African Art. "We wouldn’t have it if it wasn’t for you, let’s face it," said former Smithsonian secretary S. Dillon Ripley at the opening. Robbins continued his career as a founding director emeritus and Smithsonian senior scholar.
Thank you, Warren.