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Warren M. Robbins, 85, founded Museum of African Art

Harry Naltchayan/Washington PostWarren M. Robbins was a native of Worcester. Harry Naltchayan/Washington PostWarren M. Robbins was a native of Worcester. (Harry Naltchayan/Washington Post)
By Joe Holley
Washington Post / December 7, 2008
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WASHINGTON - Warren M. Robbins, founder of the Museum of African Art, forerunner to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art, died Thursday at George Washington University Hospital of complications from a fall at his home last month. He was 85.

When he started the Museum of African Art in 1964, Mr. Robbins, a native of Worcester, 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 attache with the US Embassy in Bonn, Germany. He and Senator S.I. Hayakawa, a California Republican, were visiting Hamburg one day, and on impulse the two men strolled into an antique shop where a collection of African sculptures caught Mr. Robbins's eye. He ended up buying 32 pieces.

From that initial purchase, Mr. 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 19th-century abolitionist icon, was on the market. Mr. Robbins raised $13,000 - his first foray into fund-raising - and took out a $35,000 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," Sharon Patton, director of the National Museum of African Art, said in a statement.

His museum survived through the force of his personality and his passion for cross-cultural understanding. Friends called him persistent and single-minded; others called him "pushy" and a "monomaniac."

He made phone calls, wrote letters, attended openings, flooded the media with news releases, and solicited loans of art pieces from private collections and from African governments. He also made himself into something of a man about town, a well-known habitue of parties and art openings.

He stuffed his museum with whatever he found interesting: green tropical plants to suggest the rainforests of Africa, masks with straw beards, drums carved into fantastic animal shapes, ceremonial stools, tapestries, and paintings.

"The place was his invention, his brainchild, his love," Washington Post writer Paul Richard noted in a 1996 article.

Initially, Mr. Robbins had to confront resentment against a white man running a black museum.

In February, he married Lydia Puccinelli Robbins. She is his only immediate survivor.

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