The National Museum of African Art is located in one of the most prestigious sites along the National Mall; it faces the Enid A. Haupt Garden and is bordered by Independence Avenue and the Smithsonian's three most historic buildings—The Castle (1855), the Arts and Industries Building (1881), and the Freer Gallery of Art (1923). In addition to housing the Smithsonian's collection of African arts, it is the Smithsonian's only Postmodern building on the Mall, introducing varied shapes and classical motifs with a modern twist.
The museum was founded in 1965 by Foreign Service officer Warren Robbins (1923–2008). While stationed in Germany, Robbins bought an African tribal mask that started an art collection that soon filled his Capitol Hill residence. After the collection expanded to fill several adjacent houses, Robbins lobbied Congress to create a museum under the Smithsonian’s auspices. In 1979, Congress authorized the purchase of the collection and its addition to the Smithsonian and the museum was completed in 1987. It is a twin museum together with the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery for Asian and Near Eastern Art—the Smithsonian's effort to diversify its collections.
Prior to the museum's establishment, the site was a formal Victorian garden and an employee parking lot. Staff of the National Capital Planning Commission, the Joint Committee on Landmarks, and the city's Committee of 100 on the Federal City argued against situating the museum underground near the Mall because it would not grant the institution sufficient prominence. However, Robbins, the museum's founder, argued that the institution belonged centrally on the mall, but agreed that in case of substantial expansion it might be relocated to a larger structure nearby.
Jean-Paul Carlhian of Boston's Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson and Abbott designed the National Museum of African Art and the Sackler Gallery of Asian Art. Prior to this commission, the architect was best known for taking the Haravard University campus vertical with his design of the 12-story Leverett House residence (1961) and the 19-story Mather House tower (1972). The Smithsonian project, however, was his most significant achievement. Carlhian commented that his vision for the complex was inspired by walking through the gates into the garden complex, which felt like "walking through a keyhole"—an experience that the African Art and Sackler galleries echo.
Each of the buildings feature only one above-ground story along with five galleries each, one with natural light. The two museums are differentiated by their roof adornments—domes on the Museum of African Art and pyramids on the Sackler Gallery; the former echo the rounded arches of the Freer Gallery on the garden’s west boundary. Other architectural details, from window panes and skylights to staircases and circular forms, are repeated in each pavilion. The red-tone granite walls harmonize with the bricks of the Arts and Industries Building.
As a result of the site planning, the Museum of African Art maintains an unusual profile since the majority of the structure is built underground. In addition to providing more space, the underground arrangement ensured that the complex does not compete with the quadrangle's surrounding historical structures. Rather than the typical experience of climbing up an elaborate staircase to reach a classically-styled museum building, visitors climb down the curving staircase to reach the subterranean exhibition spaces. The architectural theme of the circle persists throughout the building, including the entrance staircase, rounded windows, and six round domes on the roof. The galleries are large and customized by exhibition designers into smaller rooms to fit objects and exhibitions. On the interior, the lighting conditions are subdued to protect light-sensitive collections.
Longstreth, Richard, and Douglas Peter Sefton. "Smithsonian Institution Quadrangle Historic District," District of Columbia. National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, 2016. National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.
Mazmanian, Adam. "Harvard, Smithsonian Architect Jean Paul Carlhian Dies at 92." Architect Magazine, December 5, 2012.