The Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History has raised less than a tenth of the cost for a new permanent exhibition hall on African culture that opens next month.

The project, known as "African Voices," will cost $5.5 million, but museum officials acknowledged yesterday that they have raised only $377,500. The shortfall will not delay the hall's Dec. 15 opening. But to pay for the project, which covers 6,500 square feet, the museum has borrowed from the Smithsonian's private funds.

Robert Fri, director of the Museum of Natural History, said, "We have not done a good job of matching the project with the right foundation."

Fri said he and other museum fund-raisers found the subject matter was too narrow to interest some foundations.

"I think it is because cultural exhibits about Africa don't turn up on many corporation or foundation guidelines," he said. "It is not that they don't give money to Africa. . . . They say, 'We give money to Africa but to health and family planning projects.' It just turns out that when you try to fit our square into the standard giving patterns of foundations, which are all thought out ahead of time, we don't fit."

"African Voices" will be the Smithsonian's largest cultural hall when it opens.

The exhibit aims to tell the many stories of Africa from 5 million years ago to the present through photographs, film, videos and artifacts. The objects on display will include a contemporary portable Somali house and an early 20th-century carved wood door from Zanzibar.

But so far the project has attracted only four sponsors: the Shell Oil Foundation, which gave $250,000; the Coca-Cola Foundation ($100,000); Sappi Ltd., a South African paper company ($25,000); and the Ringing Rock Foundation ($2,500).

Fund-raising has not been a problem in other corners of the Smithsonian empire. In fact, private giving hit an all-time high of $92 million last year.

The entire Natural History building, which opened in 1911, has been undergoing a renovation to the tune of $100 million. Most aspects of the overhaul have attracted plenty of money. In 1997, Kenneth E. Behring, a California businessman, gave $20 million to the museum to revamp its Hall of Mammals, to modernize the landmark Rotunda and to start two traveling exhibitions.

Earlier this year, the museum opened a multipurpose Discovery Center, 80,000 square feet of cafe, cinema and a planned science room. The cinema houses an IMAX theater that was financed by a $1 million gift from Samuel C. Johnson, the chairman of the S.C. Johnson Co. and a former Smithsonian regent. The entire project was developed with Discovery Communications, which contributed $3 million. The Discovery Center's total cost was $40.6 million, some of which was financed with a bond issue. The Gem and Mineral Hall, home to the popular Hope Diamond, was redone with the help of $7 million from Janet Annenberg Hooker.

The failure of "African Voices" to attract substantial funds--in a city that is the base for a large middle-class African American community and sizable contingent of African diplomats, foreign policy experts and scholars--contrasts with the Field Museum in Chicago, which raised $4 million for its overhaul of a similar Africa exhibit in the early '90s with a campaign that attracted private and public money. Fri said the second phase of the campaign, courting individuals, was put on hold until the foundations and corporations were tapped.

"We were planning to approach foundations and corporations for the cost of building the hall, and then individuals for the programming. We had planned to divide the world up that way," he said.

Because the subject matter and the interpretation of the value of African culture are often provocative, a team of scholars and diplomats was invited to be advisers. "We haven't asked them to do any fund-raising," Fri said.

The new hall replaces one that was considered outdated and even embarrassing for its simplistic depictions of people of the African continent. It closed about eight years ago. In some ways the new hall is an attempt to correct exhibits that often isolated subjects from their scientific and cultural context, or presented views that were dated or disputed by new research and scholarship.

The story of the history and influence of the African continent will be told through studies of the family, work, community and natural environment. The principal galleries are divided into "Living in Africa," "Working in Africa," "Wealth in Africa," "Kongo Crossroads," "Market Crossroads" and "Global Africa." The last of these will discuss African migrations--both voluntary population shifts and the slave trade--and the influence of African cultures throughout the world.

Fri said he plans to use the exhibit as a fund-raising tool after it opens. He explained, "We will celebrate a great exhibition and then go back on the fund-raising trail and say: 'Come and see it, we would like you to be a part of this.' "

CAPTION: The Museum of Natural History, which opened in 1911, is undergoing a $100 million face lift.