THE AFRICAN GENIUS for design is a continuing delight for regular patrons of the National Museum of African Art. The current show of sub-Saharan headgear offers an intimate but wide-ranging sampling of how clothes make the man (only two of the 14 hats on display were worn by women).
The show is also a reminder of how much the Washington area owes Warren M. Robbins, the founder and endlessly energetic flogger of the national museum.
The most spectacular and the most interesting of the hats on view are among the countless objects Robbins has donated to the museum's permanent collection.
The centerpiece of the show is a huge red-feathered headdress from the Grassfields region of Cameroon; its precise origin and purpose are not known.
The other is a compact but elaborate fiber headgear of the Wee people, which marks its wearer as a champion farmer. It also serves as an exemplar of how complicated are the African cultures that underlie and confuse the national boundaries established by Europeans in colonial times.
The Wee are from the Kru ethnic group. They live on both sides of the border between Liberia (where they are known as the Kran) and Cote d'Ivoire, where they are called the Gere, or Wobe. The hat is won in hand-to-hand competition; the highest ambition of a champion's son is to succeed his retired father and earn the right to wear the paternal hat.
Less peaceful in purpose is a king's hat of the Kongo peoples encountered by Portuguese navigator Diogo Cao in his 1482 voyage up the Congo River. To emphasize his cunning and ferocity, a chief would have leopard claws woven into his cap; the style still persists.
The crowd favorite, judging from the number of times it was chosen for drawing by visiting schoolchildren, is a towering red round hat worn by married Zulu women of the Misiinga District of Natal, South Africa. Star Trek aficionados will recognize it as almost identical to the headdress actor Whoopi Goldberg wore in the television series "Star Trek: The Next Generation."
The show was created in response to popular demand: So many visitors asked when the museum was going to follow up "Crowning Achievements," its 1996 blockbuster headgear show, that curator Andrea Nicolls was inspired to create this modest reprise from African Art's permanent collection.
HATS OFF! -- Through Dec. 26 at the National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW. (Metro: Smithsonian, L'Enfant Plaza). 202/357-4600. Open 10 to 5:30 daily. Unassisted wheelchair accessible. Web site: www.si.edu/nmafa.