The National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) began as a private educational institution in 1964 to promote cross-cultural understanding in the social sciences and arts. Founded by Warren M. Robbins, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer, it was known as the Museum of African Art and located on Capitol Hill in a townhouse that had been the home of Frederick Douglass, the African American abolitionist and statesman. In August 1979, by enactment of Public Law 95-414, the museum became part of the Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum and research complex dedicated to the increase and diffusion of knowledge.
The museum, formally renamed the National Museum of African Art in 1981, opened to the public in a new facility on the National Mall in 1987. Initially focused on the traditional arts of sub-Saharan Africa, NMAfA broadened its collecting scope and programs to include both modern and contemporary artworks, distinguishing itself as the first museum in the United States to include a sustained focus on modern and contemporary African art in its mission.