For almost a century a painting of the Battle of Adwa, the triumph of the Ethiopians over the Italians in 1896, has been stored in the vaults of the Smithsonian. It is a majestic painting, crowded with bands of figures, animals and flags. The Ethiopians stare out full-face and the Italians rest in profile.

Now this artifact takes its place in "African Voices," the teeming new exhibition hall at the National Museum of Natural History. In its modest way, the unusual Adwa canvas underscores the themes of history, people, culture and art that are part of that continent's many stories. The painting--its artist is unknown--is also a telling signpost of the Smithsonian's belated recognition of this vast culture--in the broadest sense of the word. The permanent, 6,500-square-foot exhibit, which opens today, tells the story of Africa from all its pulse points, history, politics, economics and religion.

Voices, literally and figuratively, tell the tale, from ancient proverbs to the childhood stories of Washington metro area resident Faduma Mohammed, who grew up in a herding village in Somalia, to South Africa's Nelson Mandela. More than 400 objects from the museum are included in the exhibit, as well as photographs, videos and sound stations.

"One goal was to have the African voices frame the interpretation and let the museum become secondary," said Mary Jo Arnoldi, the show's chief curator.

The exhibit starts with the discovery of the first human beings, covers the building of African cities from 200 B.C. to A.D. 1400, the parallel development of the Egyptian and Nubian civilizations, and the African rule of Spain from 1086 to 1238. Other mileposts include the years of colonialism under the French, British, Portuguese and Dutch, the defeat of Italy by Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia, and South Africa's passage from apartheid.

"African Voices" was born of protest and debate, as the Smithsonian bowed to public outcry at its former depiction of African life and dismantled its old show in 1992. For seven years, a consortium of scholars, political and cultural activists and African immigrants planned--and argued--over the new approach. What they developed is an exhibition about change, the change fed by history, triumphant and blemished. Here is change generated by ingenuity, spirit and enterprise.

What planners also hope for is change within the exhibit's viewers. As part of the project's development, the museum surveyed its visitors and found many people didn't know Africans lived in cities.

"We did a lot of testing on what the public did know that was erroneous and what they didn't understand," said Arnoldi, the curator of African Ethnology and Art. Some didn't believe Africans used paper money, she said, and this inspired a money carousel that children can turn and match up with a quiz on the currency's drawings. Another misconception was that everyone was stationary, living in villages, until the unfortunate millions were sold into slavery. An electronic map illustrates the movement of people over time, tracing the impulse to explore, trade and seek out education.

"What we were trying to show is that what Africa is, what Africa has been, and what it can become, can be told through the creative skills of the people. What Africa is has often been lost in crisis," said C. Payne Lucas, the president of Africare, a nonprofit aid organization and one of the advisers to the show.

The staff at Natural History, and its consultant corps, faced a daunting challenge. How do you relate a sometimes chaotic history to the contemporary face of day-to-day life and to Africa's place on the world stage?

The team decided to highlight both chronology and themes. Both are presented creatively, with the gallery itself divided into a series of passages, like ones you might find off a square in Casablanca or Accra. New discoveries are always nearby. Scores of visuals line the walls, and others are in cases, such as a 19th-century Kongo Christian staff and fanciful toys made in Rwanda from your basic wire.

And there are the voices.

They call out from ceiling speakers, video screens and listening stations.

Nakunte Diarra, a textile artist in Kolo Kani, Mali, describes on video how mud cloth became her economic focus.

"I was not good at trading," she says of her experience working as a traditional market woman. With her aged dark face topped by an electric blue headwrap, she explains how she abandoned her work at the market and turned to an ancient skill of her village, making a special type of mud cloth, bogolanfini. Now she is part of a global economy, as models wearing her mud cloth sashay down Paris designer runways.

Other voices include proverbs posted on walls: "Money is like mushrooms; one person cannot gather it all," according to the Ewe people of Togo. Or emerging ones at sound stations, such as the Grammy Award-winning singer from Mali, Ali Farka Toure.

"Africa without music is not Africa. That is what life is all about. Sometimes the music takes the place of newspapers because the musicians can express their feelings and tell people what is going on," said Georges Collinet, a broadcaster and ethnomusicologist who also worked on the exhibit.

Wonderfully placed, and a strong core of the museum's lessons, are artworks that range from an aqal (a portable Somali house used by herders) to a body-size antelope mask made in Malawi of corn, to a headdress made in the 1960s of glass, leather, aluminum, brass and buttons for a Masai woman.

Not all is solemn, but most is functional. Paa Joe of Ghana makes coffins whose shapes relate to a person's hobby or occupation. On display is one shaped like a KLM jumbo jet, lined in pink satin for a businessman.

Each section of the exhibit raises questions about how events in the past are linked with today's issues. Though it provides brief answers, the text has a welcome open-mindedness and encourages visitors to think for themselves. That is true whether you're reading about Afro-Brazilian religions, studying the portrait of Oba Erediauwa, the current king of Benin whose line extends to the 14th century, or watching a film about recycling in Mali.

Linda Heywood, a historian at Howard University and one of the consulting curators, stood in front of a display of trading items the Ouimbunda people used before the Portuguese started their conquest of what is now Angola in 1890. "In the 19th century, after the wind-down of slavery, there was an entrepreneurial drive. There were economic initiatives, the Ethiopians were trying to build a railroad to help with trading," said Heywood. "But then the Europeans decided the Africans should not be in on the action. And so the tragedy of this economic stagnation and modern colonialism started."

What Heywood, and Sulayman Nyang, a Howard professor and another exhibit consultant, said yesterday as they walked through the show was that African lives were not passive, were not the images of the dying, the warring or the singing. And that meant the Smithsonian could not be passive in its interpretation. "This is an exhibition conducted in concert with the people we are talking about," said Nyang.

This exhibit is also an example of Smithsonian redress. From 1922 to 1992, the museum had a hall on Africa. The first presentation was largely void of context, based on the sizable collection of artist Herbert Ward. Ward made his own bronze sculptures of Africans, and those were included with animals, giving a lopsided view of what was important--cheetahs over people. In 1961, the display was modernized and the basic collection was integrated with a variety of materials, but what was produced was a static story, without the political and sociological underpinnings. The language used to describe this layered society--from "Hottentot" and "black magic" to "pagan" and "pygmy"--was stereotypical. While many parts of the continent were gaining independence in the 1960s and 1970s and becoming political and cultural touchstones for African Americans, the Smithsonian presented a view that was frozen in time. That view lasted for almost 30 years. Finally, pressure from Congress and others forced the museum to remove the offensive labels.

So, with great embarrassment, the hall was closed seven years ago. The Smithsonian then launched a broad advisory group, including members of the Tu-Wa-Moja, a local heritage association that had criticized the earlier content. Almost 100 people inside and outside the Smithsonian have been involved in the process. The end product is the result of spirited consultation, even including the views of high school students in Malawi. A group of 20 African immigrants formed another important committee. But the exhibition doesn't have the feel of being watered down to please every point of view. Instead, the show tips toward being overburdened with information.

The show itself presented a special challenge to the fund-raisers because it raised only a fraction of the $5 million cost and had to borrow from Smithsonian coffers to open on time.

Whatever went on behind the scenes, the objective is not only to tell about the history, literature, politics, art, wealth and work, but to tell the story honestly.

The wretched parts of the history were not sanitized by the committees or a revisionist spirit, or any nod to political correctness. The story of the slave trade of 1500 to the 1860s tells how the European slave traders negotiated with the African elite to procure captives, and people were enslaved with the same value as palm oil, peanuts and coffee.

Since stagnation was such a serious issue in the past, the planners left room for change, with segments within the exhibition that can be replaced. The section on religion, part of a discussion on African global influences, and an art gallery, which for the next year will feature the sculpture of Nigerian artist Lamidi Olonade Fakeye, will be rotated. The section on contemporary issues, such as the initial one on medical care and the fight against AIDS, respiratory disease and malaria, will change. The first display contains a medical kit used in Siaya, Kenya, where one in five children dies before age 5 of malaria.

"We don't want to ignore the challenges, but we want to show how people met them," said Arnoldi. To show what the voices have to say about the past and the present.

CAPTION: A cast bronze memorial head from Benin Kingdom, Nigeria, left, and wooden memorial figures of the Kongo people, from the Natural History exhibit.

CAPTION: Smithsonian exhibit consultant Sulayman Nyang and a portable house used by Somali herders.

CAPTION: Emperor Menelik II gave this crown to the first U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia.