National Museum of African Art

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, out the back of the Smithsonian Castle, showcases ancient and modern African art.

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The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art is well hidden. The facility is built like an underground bunker, with only a tiny portion at ground level. To get to it, you have to head out through the garden at the back of the Smithsonian Castle; the discreet entrance is directly opposite the Sackler Gallery entrance.

But once you’re inside, you’re in for a treat. There are, as you might expect, more than a few ceremonial masks, but there’s a lot more as well. You’ll find tiny, intricately carved statuettes, colorful textiles, modern photography, art made from recycled art, and commentaries on modern life like a cell phone-shaped coffin.

And all the art is displayed expertly. The facility exudes newness. None of the artifacts is crowded. The lighting is beautifully done. And the very effective air conditioning–no doubt helped by the building being mostly underground–makes the museum a wonderfully calming place to escape the crowds and heat above in the height of summer. And be sure to check out the museum’s gift shop if you’re looking for something a bit different.

Photos of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art

Sophie-Merica by Mary Sibande at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art
A mixed media piece by South African artist Mary Sibande titled Sophie-Merica (2009). It combines the traditional blue uniform of domestic workers with a Cinderella-like gown that suggests indomitable imagination.
183-15012344 Smithsonian National Museum of African Art Nigerian Mask.
An early 20th Century mask from the Efik peoples of Nigeria.
The Blue Bra Girls by Ghada Amer at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art
A sculpture by Egyptian artist Ghada Amer titled The Blue Bra Girls (2012). Cast in polished stainless steel, the piece was created a tribute to women who stand up for their beliefs and takes its name from a 2011 Reuters photograph of a veiled young woman whose blue bra was exposed as she was dragged and beaten by police at a protest in Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring.
Fountain in the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art
A fountain in one of the multi-level atriums that sends light down to the lower levels.
Smithsonian National Museum of African Art
A face mask by a Lele artist of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the early- to mid-20th century.

183-15100161 Smithsonian National Museum of African Art Atrium.

Smithsonian National Museum of African Art
Shrine figure (ikegobo) by an Edo artist in Nigeria in the early- to -mid-20th century.
183-14533732 Smithsonian National Museum of African Art Dress.
A woven dress.

Smithsonian National Museum of African Art

183-14240821 Smithsonian National Museum of African Art Lalla Essaydi Exhibit.
Part of a photography exhibit by Moroccan-born artist Lalla Essaydi at the Smithsonian African Art Museum.
Smithsonian National Museum of African Art
A Guinean wooden drum from the early 20th century crafted by a Baga artist.
Smithsonian National Museum of African Art
A Nigerian Epa helmet mask depicting fertility.

183-14595439 Smithsonian National Museum of African Art Stairway.

Smithsonian National Museum of African Art
A Nigerian Epa helmet mask depicting fertilit.

Smithsonian National Museum of African Art

183-15254067 Smithsonian National Museum of African Art Outside Building.

183-15065059 Smithsonian National Museum of African Art Clay Statue.

183-14255926 Smithsonian National Museum of African Art Lalla Essaydi Mulitmedia Exhibit.
Part of a photography exhibit by Moroccan-born artist Lalla Essaydi at the Smithsonian African Art Museum.

183-15044852 Smithsonian National Museum of African Art Mask Sculpture.

183-15041951 Smithsonian National Museum of African Art Three Masks.

183-15003341 Smithsonian National Museum of African Art Crown from Nigeria.
An early 20th century piece titled Crown from the Yoruba peoples of Nigeria.

183-14585935 Smithsonian National Museum of African Art Cosmos Stella Arts Exhibit.

183-14521030 Smithsonian National Museum of African Art Fertility Sculpture.

183-14502728 Smithsonian National Museum of African Art Sculpture.

The main entrance leading from the Enid A. Haupt Garden. Most of the museum is below ground.

More Photos of the Smithsonian’s African Art Museum

I have more photos of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art here.

How to Get to the Smithsonian’s African Art Museum

The museum is under the garden at the back of the Smithsonian Castle. From the National Mall, go through or around the Castle. From Independence Avenue, just go through the gates. The closest metro stop is Smithsonian (Orange and Blue lines); L’Enfant Place (Orange, Blue, Yellow, and Green lines) is only a couple of blocks away. Depending on the day of the week and time of day, there’s some metered on-street parking, but that’s first-come-first-served and can be hard to come by.

Taking Photos at the Smithsonian’s African Art Museum

In general, personal photography is allowed and even encouraged (along with suggested Instagram hashtags). But there are some exhibits where it’s not allowed, so check the signs in each gallery.

Flash isn’t permitted anywhere, nor are tripods. Many of the galleries are quite dark, so plan on using a high ISO.

Smithsonian National Museum of African Art Photography Rules

Smithsonian National Museum of African Art Photography Sign

Official Website

Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art

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