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Smithsonian hires British curator and filmmaker to head African Art Museum

Augustus (Gus) Casely-Hayford is the new director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. (Smithsonian)

Augustus (Gus) Casely-Hayford, a curator, historian and filmmaker who focuses on African culture, has been appointed director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art.

Casely-Hayford succeeds Johnnetta Cole, who retired in March after leading the museum for eight years. He starts Feb. 5.

The London native expressed his excitement about joining the Smithsonian and working with the museum’s 12,000-piece collection.

“It represents Africa in ways that no collection does. There is nowhere else on Earth that can show that story with equivalent visual eloquence,” he said. “I have a profound sense of wonder and love of Africa, and this job offers me an opportunity on the biggest stage to reciprocate for all it’s done for me.”

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Casely-Hayford is a force in London’s cultural scene, working as a curator, broadcaster and adviser with many organizations, including the Tate Britain, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the British Library. He created “The Lost Kingdoms of Africa” for the BBC; a six-part series for Sky Arts, “Tate Britain: Great British Walks”; and is working on films on landscape art. His book on Timbuktu and the rise of the Mali Empire will be published next year.

He served as director of Africa 05, the largest African art event in Britain, and is collaborating with London’s National Portrait Gallery on an exhibition that examines the abolition of slavery through 18th- and 19th-century portraits. He is a research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, where he earned a doctorate in African history.

Before announcing any projects or exhibitions, Casely-Hayford said he will consult with staff. But his vision extends beyond the museum, one of the smallest Smithsonian franchises. Founded in 1964, the museum became part of the Smithsonian in 1979. It has a staff of 35 and an annual budget of about $7 million. It attracted about 206,000 visitors last year.

“I don’t want to be confined by the physical gallery but want to use the whole space, to animate the whole place and make people feel it’s a space that is theirs and is constantly changing,” he said. “Every artist I have spoken to is so excited about the chance of working in that environment.”

Casely-Hayford plans to settle in Washington with his wife and 12-year-old daughter. “There are bits of Washington that are very like bits of Britain, its history, its spaces, its incredible museums. It’s a great place for a family. It’s a place that welcomes people,” he said.