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Warren M. Robbins (1923–2008)

Warren M. Robbins, founder of the Museum of African Art, forerunner to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art, died on December 4. He was eighty-five years old. When he started the museum in 1964, Robbins had never been to Africa, never worked in a museum, never been involved with the arts, and never raised money. His vision of a museum of African art for Washington grew out of a trip he took in the early 1960s, when he was a cultural attaché with the US Embassy in Bonn, Germany. He was visiting Hamburg one day and strolled into an antique shop, where a collection of African sculptures caught his eye. He bought thirty-two pieces. From that initial purchase, Robbins started his museum in the basement of his home, in part to promote cross-cultural communication at a time of civil rights ferment. Six years later, he heard that a former Capitol Hill home of Frederick Douglass, the nineteenth-century abolitionist icon, was on the market. Robbins raised thirteen thousand dollars—his first foray into fund-raising—and took out a thirty-five-thousand-dollar mortgage to buy the house, where he put his pieces on display as the Museum of African Art. Later he purchased other houses on the block—nine in all—as his collection grew. “With little money, through the largesse of friends and collectors, and an undeterred dream, Robbins established what would become one of the world's preeminent museums for exhibiting, collecting, and preserving African art,” said Sharon Patton, director of the National Museum of African Art, in a statement. When the museum had expanded to more than five thousand works, Robbins began petitioning Congress to make it a part of the Smithsonian Institution, which happened in 1979. In 1987, it moved to the National Mall and was renamed the National Museum of African Art. Robbins remained director until 1983.