Categories: Museums & Galleries

National Museum of African Art

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

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.

An early 20th Century mask from the Efik peoples of Nigeria.

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.

A fountain in one of the multi-level atriums that sends light down to the lower levels.

A face mask by a Lele artist of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the early- to mid-20th century.

Shrine figure (ikegobo) by an Edo artist in Nigeria in the early- to -mid-20th century.

A woven dress.

Part of a photography exhibit by Moroccan-born artist Lalla Essaydi at the Smithsonian African Art Museum.

A Guinean wooden drum from the early 20th century crafted by a Baga artist.

A Nigerian Epa helmet mask depicting fertility.

A Nigerian Epa helmet mask depicting fertilit.

Part of a photography exhibit by Moroccan-born artist Lalla Essaydi at the Smithsonian African Art Museum.

An early 20th century piece titled Crown from the Yoruba peopls of Nigeria.

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.

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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.

Official Website

Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art

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