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In 1964, a former U.S. State Department diplomat started the Museum of African Art in a historic Capitol Hill townhouse once owned by Frederick Douglass. The museum opened in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement with the mission “to foster cross cultural communications between people through education in the arts of Africa.” It was renamed the National Museum of African Art in 1981 and relocated to the National Mall in 1987. Kojo explores the history of a unique local art institution.
- Asif Shaikh President, The Robbins Center for Cross Cultural Communication
- Christine Mullen Kreamer Deputy Director and Chief Curator, Smithsonian National Museum of African Art
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Coming up this hour, history of two local arts institutions. Later we'll learn about the origins of the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the eccentric family who donated many of its iconic works. But first, the national museum of African art turns 50. It started in a small Capitol Hill townhouse once owned by Frederick Douglass, the brainchild of a former State Department diplomat who never actually visited the African continent.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe year was 1964. The Civil Rights Movement was in full swing and the museum of African art, as it was known in those days, began serving a very different mission than other arts institutions in this town displaying the work of traditional and modern African artists, but also fostering dialogue across races in Washington.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us in studio to discuss the National Museum of African Art at 50 is Christine Mullen Kreamer, deputy director and chief curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. Thank you so much for joining us.
MS. CHRISTINE MULLEN KREAMERIt's a pleasure, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Asif Shaikh, president of the Robbins Center for Cross Cultural Communication, among several other occupations. Asif, thank you so much for joining us.
MR. ASIF SHAIKHThank you. It's a real pleasure to be here.
NNAMDIYou too can join the conversation. If you have questions or comments the number is 800-433-8850. Did you ever visit the Museum of African Art when it was located on Capitol Hill? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Christine, Warren Robbins was a U.S. diplomat serving in Germany in the 1950s when he bought his first African art. When he starts this museum in 1964 he had never actually visited the continent of Africa. Who was Warren Robbins and how did this museum come into being?
KREAMERWell, that's a great question, Kojo, and I think Asif and I can both answer that. You know, Warren was a Foreign Service officer. He fell in love with African art without ever visiting the continent and he was really taken with the power of African art when he retired from the Foreign Service. Well, he served as a cultural affairs officer in the Foreign Service, retired from that, came to Washington, D.C. and found that the time was right to found a cultural center first and then a museum devoted to the arts of Africa.
KREAMERHe was a man who came to the arts of Africa in some ways through a love of modern art. And so I think he -- the arts of Africa resonated for him the way they did for many of the early modern artists such as Picasso, Braque and so on. The power, the beauty of African art was something that inspired those western European artists and artists in the United States too, looking to Africa as sources of inspiration.
KREAMERAnd so at this very important time during the Civil Rights Movement he founded this center that then became our museum that we celebrate today 50 years later.
NNAMDIAnd this was a case of love at first sight. Apparently when he first walked into a store and saw African art, when he emerged he bought more than 30 items, right?
KREAMERThat does sort of capture Warren's force, his personality and the fact that he just jumped into things with that passion. And, in fact, he did. He was in Homburg at the time in Germany and he walked into a shop, fell in love with the arts of Africa, bought one piece. But then one never being enough, went back. And with those 30 some pieces began this great journey that we are still on today.
NNAMDIAsif, in 1963 Robbins forms the Center for Cross Cultural Communication and he assembles a really impressive brain trust to help launch this museum. The list includes Ralph Ellison, Jacob Lawrence, Saul Benham (sp?) , Margaret Mead, Ben Shahn, Adlai Stevenson. You knew Warren Robbins personally. How does this former diplomat with no real formal experience manage to pull these folks together?
SHAIKHWell, I think you're hitting the core of what Warren was. it's not in art. It's not in museums but it's about making unexpected connections. I would say Warren was somebody who didn't have a restless mind but a mind that never rested. He really wanted to address the bigger issues and bring all of these disparate pieces that no one would expect to come together together. He was above all, in my opinion, an entrepreneur. And I have a story about my first meeting with him but we'll get to that later.
NNAMDITell me. No, tell us.
SHAIKHI was first introduced to Warren in the year 2000 by a friend. And within a few minutes his personality took hold. And then he asked me if I had his iconic book from 1989 on African Art in American Collections. I said I did not. And he sold me one at a reasonable price, a little bit above market and autographed it.
SHAIKHAnd then he said -- I said something about books being so important, he said, oh well, let me show you some other books. And he took me upstairs and he showed me the very rare copy of his 1968 book on American collections. And the gist of the story is that 90 minutes and $2,000 later I was a proud contributor to the Robbins Center for Cross Cultural Communication. That was Warren.
NNAMDIThat explains essentially how he was able to do all of this. In case you're just joining us, we're having a conversation about the National Museum of African Art at 50 with Asif Shaikh. He is president of the Robbins Center for Cross Cultural Communication and Christine Mullen Kreamer, deputy director and chief curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. How do you think our attitudes about African art and cross cultural communication have changed since 1964? You can also send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or shoot us a tweet at kojoshow.
NNAMDIThis was a museum about African art but its mission was also very much focused on the American experience in our troubled history of race relations. And its sensibilities were very different from the other African art museums around the world. Its mission was, quoting here "to foster cross cultural communication through education in the arts of Africa." Can you talk a little bit, each of you, about how Robbins thought about the mission? First you, Asif.
SHAIKHWarren saw the greatest cultural divide in our country as that between black and white. He had a passion for art and he came up with a vision that we should address this divide, not by the things that divide us but the things that unite us. And that's a very unusual thing to do. And through the appreciation of the arts -- and there was a very large white audience for African art in Europe and growing in the United States -- he raised the profile of the origins of African Americans in America and brought together, as you sighted in the list, of his initial coterie, people from both races and people from all walks of life. And so his vision was to build something positive and educational, as you said.
KREAMERAnd, you know, in those early days and even up to today, the mission of the museum has always been to engage the diverse audiences that we serve. And back in the day it was the local D.C. communities of course.
KREAMERThe growing communities of African immigrants continued to be coming to our museums today. But now as the mission has grown we reach out globally. But he was really interested in an energized approach to the arts and cultures of Africa. So it was a lively place filled with performances, filled with school children. In fact, back in the early days the museum had a bus with Museum of African Art on it. And if you look at our website, Africa.si.edu you can see that photo of these early school children coming off the bus that was named in honor of our museum.
KREAMERAnd so it was a lively place, a place where he encouraged people to come. He was the master of working the crowd. You know, you talk about the early days and how did this man pull it off. Well, he had the likes of Gregory Peck, Liz Taylor, congressmen and senators on The Hill, people coming in, poets, a letter from Maya Angelou who was a great supporter of his as well, the late great Maya Angelou.
KREAMERAnd so, you know, many people gravitated toward Warren understood the mission of this museum and really found that Washington, D.C. was a great place to found it but to allow it to really flourish in a way that it could over these many years.
NNAMDIThere are also stories before the museum launched in 1964 when he used to use his basement to display his collection. After the Washington post wrote about this collection, people would show up at his house and ask to see the collection. He would let them in. But if Asif is correct, by the time they left they'd probably bought some stuff, huh?
SHAIKHAnd donated other pieces as well.
NNAMDIExactly right. On now to Gretchen in Washington, D.C. Gretchen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GRETCHENHi, Kojo. I worked at the museum from 1978 to 1983 as the docent coordinator. And then I went on and worked at a number of other museums. And I work on a museum journal now so I wanted to just offer some insights because one of the big pushes, I think, in American museums in the last 25 years has been pushing for more diversity in terms of both staffing and also visitors.
GRETCHENAnd I really do think that the museum, as I look back on it, was a forerunner in that area in that we had a really diverse staff, African American and white. And also our docent core was probably half -- many of the white members were former Peace Corps or State Department folks who had fallen in love with Africa. And then we had many African American docents who were very interested in learning more about their culture.
GRETCHENAnd our visitation was also -- I think that we were a real community museum and for many people maybe the first museum that they had visited. So I just wanted to -- I didn't realize it was the 50th anniversary. And when I heard that I thought I just have to call in because I think that the museum played a tremendous role in the Washington community. And it was really a place for racial -- sometimes hard racial discussions but also a place where people could really mingle and find community.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Gretchen. There are, by 1964, already a handful of world class museums of African art. Many European art institutions amassed huge collections during the colonial era. In New York, Rockefeller family has a very famous collection too. How was this museum different?
KREAMERWell, this is the...
NNAMDIThis is what Gretchen seems to be saying.
KREAMERAbsolutely. And first of all, I'd like to thank Gretchen for her service to the museum so many years ago. It's just terrific to hear from Gretchen and others who really love this museum. But this museum is the only national museum devoted exclusively to the arts of Africa. But importantly, in something that Gretchen brought out, its connection to the communities that this museum serves.
KREAMERAnd so reaching out, making a connection with Africa's diasporas around the world is extremely important for us. Being relevant to the changing issues that are important to Africa, to the arts of Africa and to the communities we serve is also extremely important. As a focus on Africa, we look beyond the so-called traditional arts of Africa to include popular arts and the contemporary arts of Africa.
KREAMERAnd so that's something that Gretchen and others coming to the museum, even in our early days, would've seen the embrace of all of Africa's creativity on view and serving communities and being a place of connection, dialogue and storytelling.
NNAMDIAsif, it is as if at a certain level Robbins is rejecting the idea that this art should be appreciated as work or a work frozen in time, correct?
SHAIKHVery much so. For those who have visited some of the older museums in Europe, the art was placed in glass shelves with tags on them almost like, well, toe tags on them. And they were viewed as ethnographic objects rather than something that communicates with us. And one wanted to take them out of the boxes and to live among them. And for those of you who have not visited the Robbins Center, which continues today, it is a reflection of his life and his desire to be surround by art. So he really did wanted it to be. The one thing I heard from Warren consistently was the museum has to be a living place. People have to come through it. They have to experience and feel it. So that was very much sufficient.
KREAMERAnd the other thing that Warren often said was that this place is an educational institution with a museum attached to it. And so, he really saw this museum, this place as an educational center and that education really remains at the core of National Museum of African Art today.
NNAMDIWe're on now to Linda in Arlington, VA. Linda, you're on the air, go ahead please.
LINDAGood afternoon, Kojo.
LINDAI am Linda Crocker Simmons, curator emeritus from the Corcoran. But I'm calling not about the Corcoran but about my husband's association. He was a good Warren Robbins. I've met him in Germany and it was Robbins that introduced my husband to African art. And Robert, my husband, served as one of the early trustees at the Museum of African Art. And I want to say that I hope that Warren will receive the full recognition he is due for his contribution to our recognition and understanding of African art and the place it plays in our national heritage.
LINDAHe additionally founded the Frederick Douglass Institute which take us on African American art and collected the work of, at that time in the '60s, the still rather unknown and neglected African American artist Henry Tanner. So Warren made a major contribution to our national heritage and I'm glad to hear this recognition coming to him.
NNAMDIAnd, Linda, if you'll stay on the line, you can listen to this email we got from Ellen in McLane again about Warren Robbins. Ellen writes, I met Warren when the collection was still in his house on Capitol Hill in the 1980s. My friend was a student at Georgetown Law School and was renting a room in his house. They had become good friends. One evening, my friend and I were attending a black tie event at the Renwick and Warren saw us dressed to go out."
NNAMDI"He went to a case and brought out a very elaborate ancient Egyptian necklace, which had come from a tomb. He insisted that I wear it to the event. However, I was so spooked by the idea that there might be a mummy's curse on it that I refuse to wear it. So I missed my one opportunity to wear a priceless piece to a public event. Warren was a fascinating, outgoing, brilliant man and I feel lucky to have met him personally. So that is Ellen's story. Linda, thank you very much for sharing yours.
LINDAA warm tribute. And I completely agree, Warren was a marvelous, outgoing, intelligent and wonderful person who has left us a heritage that I hope to give him full recognition for.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Chris, let's focus on the art itself for a second. While some sectors of the art world believe that African art was primitive, many of the great European artists of the 20th century were deeply influenced by the masks and print works of traditional African crafts. Perhaps the best known among them is Picasso. Tell us about how that influence took place.
KREAMERWell, Kojo, I would say that really there is something special about the arts of Africa, its forms, it's materials, the potency of visual power of works of art that actually appealed to European and American modern artists at the beginning of the 20th century and even a bit earlier and certainly throughout. And so, I think European artists or Western artists look to African art and you found something that resonate with their own work.
KREAMERAnd I think that economy of form sometimes, that very expressive kind of quality that you see in certain kinds of masks and figures was something that spoke to these artists, and thus made the works relevant. And, of course, in the early days of the museum, Warren had set-up what he called the comparative gallery where he had European modern prints on view in juxtaposition, if you will, with works of African arts.
KREAMERSo that visitors coming through could see that even when people didn't understand necessarily the meaning of the works of African art that they saw, there was something visual. And we often talk about African art having that wow factor and the fact that its wow for outsiders such as myself who, you know, have studied the arts of Africa but not from within a cultural context of being born and raised in a particular culture.
KREAMERBut being wowed by the forms and materials and the potency of how they're used and it touches us cross-culturally, it touches us over time and it connects all of us in these wonderful stories. Something that we want to do here at the museum.
NNAMDIAsif, Robbins had a background in diplomacy. And this being Washington, a political town and a town with a lot of embassies, Robbins was very active in soliciting works and resources from African embassies. In fact, he seem to aspire for this institution to be a tool of soft power, if you will, with the U.S. and Africa. How do African governments view this at a museum?
SHAIKHAfrican governments were very supportive of it. But I think it's also fair to say that the African elite, for many years, for precisely the reasons that Chris cited shied away from traditional art because it is called primitive. And they sought to move to the modern world. But over the years, the African ambassadors, the African missions have become extremely enthusiastic. We are, for the first time, at the museum receiving funds from Africa rather than just from U.S. sources. So there's a great deal of enthusiasm about that. And Warren was a huge personality.
NNAMDIHere's Ben in Washington, D.C. Ben, you're on the air, go ahead please.
BENYes, thank you very much for taking my call. Really awesome dialogue. I wanted to get some insight on ancient African antiquities that were taken from a lot of locations, including Egypt and Kamet, what the role that the African museums play, especially when a lot of these antiquities sit in Europe.
KREAMERYeah. Ben, that's a really great question. And, of course, the Smithsonian Institution is an institution of best practices, I would say. And so, our museum as well as all Smithsonian institutions follow the UNESCO guidelines for the protection of cultural heritage, including antiquities. We engage very directly with the governments from many African countries to try and understand how antiquities are making their way illegally out in the market.
KREAMERWe educate our public, whether we're making a visit to someone's collection or if we give tours throughout the museum to educate them on Africa's antiquities laws, the fact that the United States of course supports those laws and we have very strict import regulations that Smithsonian, you know, adheres to. The other thing, though, is that many of these objects made their way out from Africa long before these laws were in place.
KREAMERAnd we engaged with the governments of countries now to let them know what we have. We publish what we have. We make them available online. We rent out with educational institutions throughout Africa so that these objects are not lost once they've reached the collections, museum collections, but in fact can be shared with the world. And thus, we can tell such stories.
NNAMDIWe're going to have to take a break very soon because when we come back we're going to be talking about the Clark Family Castle, which amassed a huge fortune during the Gilded Age, purchased a lot of great artworks, then eventually transferred much of it to the Corcoran. That's the traditional way things are done. What's fascinating about the Robbins story is that he built this institution without any real money. Is that because of who he was and how he was able to engage others?
SHAIKHWe have talked about Warren's personality. And Linda and Ellen spoke about how charming he was. He was an absolute charmer. But I don't think we can know Warren without also realizing he was a person of iron will. He made the equivalent of what I would call Lyndon Johnson phone calls but he would simply not get off the phone until somebody said yes. And that will allowed him to just move forward against all the odds.
KREAMERAnd what I might mention is that the first object that came in to the collection is an object that's called the Altar of the Hand. And it actually is an object that is made in honor of someone with this iron will and iron determination. It's from the Benin kingdom, edo artist.
NNAMDIAnd it's representative of who he is.
KREAMERBut it's perfect. Perfect.
NNAMDIThe Museum of African Art first opened its doors on June 3, 1964. Tomorrow, the museum will commemorate that opening with a full day of activities. Tell us about what's on the agenda.
KREAMEREverything is available at africa.si.edu on our website. But we start out with a coffee ceremony honoring our Ethiopian communities. We have dancers, stilt walkers, performers, drummers. We have henna design that you can get in our museum. We have a basket-making activity. Importantly at noon, we have Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton and D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray giving us proclamations honoring our museum's 50th anniversary.
KREAMERWe have cupcakes. We have balloons. We've got lots of fun. And importantly at four o'clock, NPR's own Michel Martin will lead us in a discussion about this history. And so, come tell yours stories, share your memories.
NNAMDIAll takes place tomorrow, the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. Christine Mullen Kreamer is its deputy director and chief curator. Thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAsif Shaikh is president of the Robbins Center for Cross Cultural Communications. Thank you for joining us.
SHAIKHThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll learn about the origins of The Corcoran Gallery of Art and the eccentric family who donated many of its iconic works. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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