Earlier versions of this obituary incorrectly said that a gallery at the Smithsonian's Museum of African Art had been named in honor of Warren M. Robbins. It is actually the Warren M. Robbins Library. The obituary also failed to mention that Mr. Robbins's survivors include a sister, Anita Brody. This version has been corrected.
Museum of African Art Founder Warren Robbins
Friday, December 5, 2008
Warren M. Robbins, 85, founder of the Museum of African Art, forerunner to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art, died Dec. 4 at George Washington University Hospital of complications from a fall at his home last month.
When he started the Museum of African Art in 1964, Mr. Robbins had never been to Africa, never worked in a museum, never been involved with the arts and never raised money.
His vision of a museum of African art for Washington grew out of a trip he took in the early 1960s, when he was a cultural attache with the U.S. Embassy in Bonn, Germany. He and Sen. S.I. Hayakawa (R-Calif.) were visiting Hamburg one day, and on impulse the two men strolled into an antique shop where a collection of African sculptures caught Mr. Robbins's eye. He ended up buying 32 pieces.
From that initial purchase, Mr. Robbins started his museum in the basement of his home, in part to promote cross-cultural communication at a time of civil rights ferment. Six years later, he heard that a former Capitol Hill home of Frederick Douglass, the 19th-century abolitionist icon, was on the market. Mr. Robbins raised $13,000 -- his first foray into fundraising -- and took out a $35,000 mortgage to buy the house, where he put his pieces on display as the Museum of African Art. Later he purchased other houses on the block -- nine in all -- as his collection grew.
"With little money, through the largess of friends and collectors, and an undeterred dream, Robbins established what would become one of the world's preeminent museums for exhibiting, collecting and preserving African art," said Sharon F. Patton, director of the National Museum of African Art, in a statement.
His museum survived through the force of his personality and his passion for cross-cultural understanding. Friends called him persistent and single-minded; others called him "pushy" and a "monomaniac."
He made phone calls, wrote letters, attended openings, flooded the media with news releases and solicited loans of art pieces from private collections and from African governments. He also made himself into something of a man about town, a well-known habitue of parties and art openings.
"He has a handsome facial structure, decorated with a Mephistophelean beard and enough black hair to show he's an artiste," Sarah Booth Conroy observed in The Washington Post in 1979. "He is a hunchback, not that it's kept him from piloting planes, skiing or collecting a number of 'longtime relationships' with women."
He stuffed his museum with whatever he found interesting: green tropical plants to suggest the rainforests of Africa, masks with straw beards, drums carved into fantastic animal shapes, ceremonial stools, tapestries, paintings.
"The place was his invention, his brainchild, his love," Post writer Paul Richard noted in a 1996 article.
Initially, he had to confront resentment against a white man running a black museum. He had a ready answer: "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."
Mr. Robbins wanted the museum to be a teaching institution. He said that, unlike most museums that had departments of education, the Museum of African Art was a department of education that had a museum. He bought a bus to bring schoolchildren in and a van to haul art around town.