When she was a curator at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Sylvia H. Williams saw a photograph of a century-old ivory staff carved in the form of an adult and child. The sculpture became her obsession.

For years the work, attributed to the Vili people of the Lower Congo, haunted her. Twice the sculpture came on the market and twice she couldn't find acquisition funds.

Now 16 years later, Williams has the delicate sculpture. She has placed it in a plexiglass case in the majestic facility on the Mall that is the new home of the National Museum of African Art.

"It is not in a center case all to itself," she says. "It is with a cluster of extraordinary ivory pieces ... When you cluster together ivory of that time and quality, they become little jewels and sparkle all to themselves. It is a little discovery."

As she fingers her two pairs of eyeglasses, Williams flashes a rare smile of satisfaction.

"It is the art historian's paradise when you track everything right back to the earliest moment," she says. "You don't hit that often. If you achieve it once in your life, either on a minor or major scale, it keeps you going, and you never forget it." A talent for puzzle-solving is a prime requisite in the detectivelike fields of art history and archeology, and Williams is a judicious journeyman of the craft.

For four years she has been director of the African art museum, preparing its 6,000-piece collection for a new life as part of the Smithsonian Institution's new $73.2 million museum and research complex. The old Museum of African Art on Capitol Hill, a private museum founded in 1964 by Warren M. Robbins, was adopted by the Smithsonian in 1979 and closed in 1986 for the move to its new location, which opens today.

When the visitor walks past the Castle and through the pink granite and copper-domed pavilion, Williams' imprint is immediately obvious. Her colleagues talk about "her eye," that special combination of knowledge, intuition and taste.

African art, says Michael Botwinick, who directed the Brooklyn Museum when Williams was curator and, until last June, was director at the Corcoran, often attracts scholars more interested in anthropology than esthetics -- scholars who "bury you in those details" about what an object indicates about a tribe or civilization. "She is one of a very, very small handful in her field ... who takes the material to the next level and presents it as art," he says.

When the museum acquired an akua'ba, a small fertility symbol, a problem developed with its display. "It is two-sided, the mother on one side, the child on the other. The case is three-sided but most of the 'information' is on the back of the piece," says Richard Franklin, the museum's chief of design. "I was just standing there trying to figure out what to do. And Sylvia says, 'Install it sideways.' Everyone stopped and looked. This is the oddest kind of comment, a very unusual installation strategy. But I thought it was exactly what to do. She had quickly computed that we could do the eccentric and serve both the piece and the viewer."

In other cases, her ear may set the standards. Philip L. Ravenhill, the chief curator, describes her insistence on details. "When we went to New York to look at the script and story board of an audio-visual presentation for the textile exhibit, Sylvia went very quickly to the heart of the script," says Ravenhill. "As the script first appeared, it did not include the word 'improvisation,' " Williams remembers. But when weavers are most creative, she believes, they improvise designs as they work, just like jazz musicians. "I won my point," she says.

The impact of her museum is both serene and declarative. Respectful in its display, spare in explanation but connected to its familial context, the art speaks for itself. The simplicity reflects Williams' goal. "My hope," says Williams, "is {that visitors} will gain a sense of the esthetic brilliance of African art."

Williams attributes a certain amount of her professional success to luck.

Her attraction to puzzles, and her love of art, attracted her to art research during her undergraduate years at Oberlin. She still remembers a class assignment in which she found all the documentation for an early Roman sarcophagus. Once she convinced her parents she could make a living in the museum world, she was hired for her first job at the Museum of Modern Art in New York after one phone call. But then she quit museum work for a decade to work as a secretary for the African-American Institute in Lagos for two years, developed tests for African students studying in the United States, studied languages in Paris, worked as an escort for the State Department, and then arranged programs for Latin American students for the International Exchange Program of the National Social Welfare Assembly. When she decided to study for a master's degree at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts, Williams was appointed a fellow at the Brooklyn Museum by a stroke of timing. Then her persistence, production and popularity brought her into the specialized world of curator at the Brooklyn, where she spent 11 years.

Since she moved to Washington, Williams has both literally and figuratively been underground, buried in the preparation of the museum. Today, as the African museum, together with the adjacent Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Asian Art, opens to the public, its director will be in the spotlight, which she herself says is not her favorite place to be.

"I don't talk about myself and my work with great ease," Williams says. "I just do it." Talking about herself, she says, "is troubling and sometimes I have to take 24 hours and get myself together."

There is no sign of such discomfort in the museum, where Williams moves with assurance as well as familiarity. There, she is described by colleagues as tough, sometimes aloof, serious and decisive. "She is a very straight and feisty lady. She comes without camouflage," says Roy Sieber, the museum's associate director. "She gets angry easily when she doesn't like how things are coming out. But she gets over that anger very quickly. When things are going well, she talks about our show, the show. When something isn't going right, it's your show. It is said facetiously but the point is made."

There's additional pressure, perhaps, in Williams' new visibility: She is one of the few women and the only black woman to be director of a major American museum, and the only woman to head a museum of the Smithsonian.

Internally and externally, the Smithsonian has been criticized in recent years for the scarcity of minority professionals on its staff, the lack of minority perspectives in many exhibitions and installations and the relative paucity of black visitors. The institution has established a special office and an external committee to look at these issues.

"The Smithsonian cannot fulfil its charter without representing every culture in the country," says Peggy Cooper Cafritz, chairman emeritus of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities and a member of the external committee. "The Museum of African Art should become a focal point, an agent for change within the Smithsonian. It is not enough for the Smithsonian to say we have the African art museum. We cannot allow them to ghettoize black culture."

Many blacks in the arts community are waiting for Williams to take a deep breath after the openings and help address these issues. But she says African art alone will prove a multicultural magnet. "You have to get people to come in here, feel comfortable, curious, want to know more," she says. "It's theirs. I have seen it work. If I hadn't seen it work, I might not feel so emphatic about it."

Meanwhile, Williams, 51, is looking forward to discovering a more normal life than she's ever known in Washington. She and her husband Charlton, a retired furniture retailer, share a town house on Capitol Hill. They haven't had a vacation in four years. "He understood our lives are bound up in this," she says.

In the countdown to the museum's inaugural, she has posed for photographers beside any number of Benin sculptures, Koro headdresses and Mende textiles. "Maybe I could get one of those cardboard figures," she says, musing mischievously, amid hearty laughter, about the idea of a Robocurator.

Though the world of the researcher is a process of peeling away layers to solve the puzzle, sometimes a curator has to act fast. While at the Brooklyn, Williams heard about an exhibition of ancient Indonesian art in Geneva. She borrowed a copy of the catalogue and was entranced, but thought it was too late to see the show and arrange for an exchange. Botwinick encouraged her to try, and the next day both were on a jet to Geneva. "She just enthralled the curator and the collector," says Botwinick. Within a day the negotiations were complete, from how many catalogues were available to how the art was to be shipped. Within a month, "Art of the Archaic Indonesians" was in place at the Brooklyn.

Williams sounds as if the memory of that dizzying pace remains a bit unsettling. "It is so unusual to bring in a show with that kind of speed. I spent more time in the air than I did in Geneva," she says. And she doesn't like to fly.

In the 1940s, when Williams was growing up on the campus of Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, , the world outside was segregated. But the faculty, including Williams' father, who was dean of the school, gave its children the best that the college had to offer. Her baby-sitters included students such as Kwame Nkrumah, later prime minister of Ghana, and faculty children attended a special private school. "It was at our house for a while ... and you might be the only one in a particular grade, so you got a lot of attention," she remembers. "I do clearly remember enjoying painting classes ... I didn't have any illusions that I was going to be a great artist {but} my parents encouraged it. As I got older we went as a group to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and in the summer the children were always enrolled in woodblock, painting and drawing classes." The only art that didn't attract her was sculpture, she says, noting that life's ironies have now wrapped her life around some of the most prized sculptures in the world.

But she wanted to study art. Her mother, an educator who taught at Dunbar and Armstrong high schools here and commuted with another daughter to Pennsylvania on weekends, assumed she would teach. "When I told her I was getting a degree in art history, she asked the appropriate question: 'What are you going to do with that?' " Once she had her degree her parents gave her one day to find a job in New York. "It was just luck. I called the Museum of Modern Art and they asked, 'Are you interested in working in our library?' " says Williams.

After three years at MOMA in New York, she lived in Nigeria with her father, then an official with the African-American Institute, worked with a student scholarship program in Nigeria and later studied French and German in Paris. This decade of divergence from art ended when Williams enrolled in New York University's graduate program in 1970. "I also needed a job and I called the Brooklyn and all the fellows had been appointed with the exception of the one in African and ocean cultures," says Williams. For the next five years she took classes at night to earn her degree and then stayed at the Brooklyn after her three-year fellowship.

There she renewed her love of puzzles.

"With most art historians, there are two things. You focus first visually on something you really visually enjoy. I loved the objects, the material from which they were made, the whole conception of an object, how complex the functions," says Williams. Secondly, she loved the research. "I happen to like puzzles. What is the meaning of this motif at its simplest level? What are the myriad functions for this type of object? I tried to find those answers."

At the Brooklyn, which has one of the oldest African art collections in the country, she reinstalled the African art component, reorganized the department so the art of the Americas had its own curator and developed a rapport with the collectors so they were interested in donating to her not-as-splashy-as-the-Met museum. "She has the capacity to immediately establish what is important, what is not and to help other people focus on those points. She is absolutely no-nonsense but not tactless," says chief curator Linda Ferber of the Brooklyn.

The Museum of African Art's Sieber remembered how she arranged his exhibition on "African Furniture and Household Objects." "The show was full of a lot of small African objects and it was difficult to install. What she did was lead you from one section to another and through the exhibition with a sense of surprise as you turned a corner," says Sieber. Williams and Sieber were recruited for the Smithsonian job at the same time. He didn't want to give up teaching and decided to take the No. 2 slot. He says the arrangement is harmonious. "Sylvia has taken on all the dirty work, the basic day-to-day running of the museum. I had never worked in a museum, though I did exhibitions," says Sieber.

This week's inaugural marks the second phase of the life of the Museum of African Art. The first was an evolution from the idea of one man, Warren Robbins, into an special institution not only of art but social life.

Included in Robbins' collection of 6,000 works of art are paintings by Afro-American artists now distributed to other Smithsonian collections. Other pieces were "deemed to have educational value" and are tagged for teaching seminars. Williams has added 340 pieces to the collection.

From its beginnings, the museum survived through the force and personality of Robbins, a former Foreign Service officer, and the support of the international community and local Africanists. What was almost as important to the community as its art was the museum's role as a conduit of information and identity in the late 1960s and early '70s, during the era of growing black pride and cultural awareness.

For Robbins, now a senior scholar at the Smithsonian, the needs of the audience were primary. "I always started with {the public}, not the specialists, and not the already converted. The principal responsibility -- in a public education institution -- must be to the public," he says.

His museum became a cultural crossroads and a prototype for similar museums. It was not just another museum. It not only educated through many programs but became a popular space for receptions and symposiums that linked the need for an interesting space with the desire to make a cultural statement.

Its evolution into part of the Smithsonian has thus had its downside for some. "My concern is that the old Museum of African Art was an exciting catalyst for black art activities. I certainly was caught up in that. There is a slight disappointment because no other place has captured people's imagination. There is a void there," says Joy Austin, the former director of the Association of Afro-American Museums.

"Just because it is new doesn't mean it cannot be enjoyable. But it is another entity," says Williams. She calls the old museum "an environment" and says it "would not be right to think" the new facility wouldn't be trying some new ideas.

"A major museum cannot function like a small neighborhood place. What is wonderful is that we have that mix," she says. The education program, she says, will be more active because of the additional classroom space; its use as a reception center will probably diminish. "The Smithsonian has very strict rules about how space is used ... I want to see the museum keep the balance of {pleasing its constituencies} with meeting its mission."

And, she says, with a stern friendliness, the whole collection is an education for herself and every visitor who comes in. "There are still many people in the United States who have not seen African art ... Yet I think people are much more aware of the context of the art. Now we should just teach each object," she says. "And 'teaching people to see' is an extraordinarily satisfying thing."