IF ALL GOES as planned in the next few months, the Museum of African Art will be grafted onto the Smithsonian Institution. It's an unusual deal, for the museum, which has offered exhibitions, classes and seminars to thousands of local residents and visitors since it opened its doors in 1964, would remain scattered in several town houses for several years, at least. But the institutional connection is the important part of the new arrangement, which strikes us as a good one for all concerned. Founded and directed by Warren Robbins, the museum is the only one in the country devoted entirely to African art. It contains a collection of more than 7,000 objects - sculptures, jewelry, textiles, musical instruments and carvings - as well as 100,000 slides, photos and films of Africa, bequeathed to it by Life magazine photographer Eliot Elisofon. Along with its cultural wealth, however, the museum also has substantial debts. Increasing costs for items such as maintenance and personnel have made it hard for the museum to survive.
The uncertain prospects prompted Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey several years ago to champion the idea of bringing the museum under the aegis of the Smithsonian Institution. Sen. Humphrey, the first chairman of the museum's national board of trustees, spent considerable time assisting in fund-raising and other work. He considered the museum a national institution and believed that the Smithsonian, with all of its resources and holdings, could offer it financial stability, scholarly expertise and curatorial services. In return, the Smithsonian would receive a valuable collection of African art. Early this year, the Smithsonian's board of regents agreed that the museum should become one of its "bureaus," noting that such a move could serve to strengthen both the Museum of African Art and the Smithsonian itself. The other day, the Senate also gave its blessing to this union.
As far as we can tell, there are no major objections from members of the House. But several congressmen have shown interest in the fate of the town houses in which the museum is now located, particularly the home of the noted abolitionist Frederick Douglass, which served as the museum's cornerstone building. The legislation approved by the Senate instructs the museum to move to other quarters in the next few years, but it leaves the way clear for the town house to be preserved. We look forward to congressional approval of this bill; the museum of African Art deserves to be officially recognized as a national treasure.