Founded in 1964, the National Museum of African Art was established as the first museum in the U.S. dedicated to African art. It started in the 1950s, when an American Foreign Service officer named Warren M. Robbins began collecting African antiques in Germany. With the intent of addressing racial issues and communicating an appreciation for black cultural heritage, Robbins set up an informal collection of figures, textiles, and books in a house on Capitol Hill in 1960. It grew into an educational venue and a place to meet and discuss then-current events, namely the ongoing Civil Rights Movement and the emerging Black Arts Movement.
Both traditional and contemporary works are part of the collection, originating from the Sub-Saharan and North Arab African regions. Exhibitions are constantly moving from past to current to future exhibitions and showcase all forms of media including sound, watercolor, cloth, and wood carving. Various themes and topics are embodied by these works—the universal presence and influence of water in Currents: Water in African Art, the spiritual, physical, and social essences of the human being in Healing Arts, or regional tribal life through masks and ceremonial jewelry in the retired Visions from the Forests: The Art of Liberia and Sierra Leone.
As quoted by Robbins, the NMAfA was essentially “an education department with a museum attached.” At the museum, trained docents are available to lead tours and educational programs to allow for a more immersive and informative experience. Research and resource centers include the Warren M. Robbins Library, established in 1971 to contribute to the study and research of African visual art; over 50,000 volumes of topics such as pottery, architecture, creative writing, theater, and religion are present in the facility. The Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives is another special place containing nearly 450,000 rare and well-preserved maps, engravings, and other artifacts.