Sights & Activities

Celebrating 50 Years at the National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC

March 13, 2014

Photo courtesy of Tomathon on Flickr Creative Commons

WASHINGTON, DC, US – 50 years may be a blip in the history of African art, given that the continent has been producing art and artistic objects for thousands of years. But, the half-century mark is a rather grand milestone for the National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC, which got its start in 1964. The focused collection is one of the highlights of the Smithsonian museums in the capital, and the celebration of the half-centennial makes this a great time to visit!

The museum began as a private educational institution and was originally located on Capitol Hill in the former townhouse of abolitionist Frederick Douglass. It moved to its spot on the National Mall in 1987. While it initially focused on the traditional arts of sub-Saharan Africa, over the years, the scope has broadened to include a focus on modern and contemporary African art. Today, the museum’s collection of over 10,000 objects spans the continent of Africa as well as a variety of media and art forms.

Some of our favorite things to gaze at include gorgeous Moroccan jewelry, wooden drums from Ghana, and 19th century painted masks. There are also African textiles, musical instruments, and ancient combs and hairpins. Some artworks are grouped by theme, including artifacts that reflect the stars and cosmos, animals, and the earth. Traditional tribal treasures share gallery space with contemporary paintings.

You don’t have to be an African history buff or art aficionado to appreciate the beauty and intricate details of this colorful and exotic collection. Its global focus and digestible size are a refreshing change of pace among the Smithsonian museums, which tend to focus on grandiose displays of American history. It’s also a fun place to bring kids, especially since the museum has a collection of coloring books and scavenger hunt activities.

The museum’s mission is to “inspire conversations about the beauty, power, and diversity of African arts and cultures worldwide.” And that’s exactly what happens whenever we pay a visit. As we covet elaborate necklaces (beauty!), marvel at menacing face masks (power!), and scratch our heads at avant-garde contemporary paintings (diversity!), we’re totally on board.

Here’s to the next 50 years!

Read more about the National Museum of African Art in our Washington, DC Guide.

National Museum of African Art
950 Independence Ave., SW
Washington, DC
(1) 202-633-4600

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