Michigan Alumnus Warren M. Robbins and African ArtSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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A little white beard helps, I've learned. Since, as in Africa, it is a symbol of wisdom (so taking no chances, I grew one for just such occasions as this). - Warren M. Robbins, at the dedication ceremony of the Robbins Center for Graduate Studies in the School of Art and Design, 1996.
The Slusser Gallery in the School of Art and Design recently mounted the exhibition "Traditional African Textiles from the Warren M. Robbins Collection," featuring a range of textiles from west and central Africa. This show revealed the growing emphasis on intercultural education, seen in the course offerings, lectures and selection of visiting scholars in the disciplines of history, anthropology, and art. On a broader scale, the show revealed the interdisciplinary nature of African studies.
Robbins' earlier association with the University of Michigan (MA, 1949) and his more recent connection with the School of Art and Design culminated in the September 1996 opening of the Warren Robbins Center for Graduate Studies, in recognition of Robbins' achievements as an educator, museum-founder, administrator, and author, and his contribution to the newly expanded school as a member of its advisory board.
His relationship to the University began in 1945 when he enrolled in a two-year M.A. program in History. During this time he roamed an interdisciplinary course of study that led him into the fields of linguistics, literature, journalism, and particularly cultural anthropology, under the mentorship of Leslie A. White. Robbins extols White as "a great synthesizer of knowledge of our time," one who helped him to articulate a language for intercultural education.
Robbins' interdisciplinary interests appear both in his educational background and in the various twists and turns of his career path. With 45 years devoted to intercultural education, he describes himself as an "interdisciplinarian," integrating and popularizing the insights and perspectives of the arts and sciences.
Upon completion of studies at the University, Robbins worked as a secondary school teacher of the children of military personnel and other Americans stationed in Germany. Among his students was a future President of the University of Minnesota, Peter McGrath, who described Robbins as "the best teacher I ever had." Subsequently he worked for the U.S. Information Agency and the Department of State in post-war Germany and Austria. In 1959, returning from vacation to his station in Bonn, Germany, he stopped at an African art dealer in Hamburg, and purchased several masks, figures and textiles that launched him on another career that would bring him international recognition.
Returning to the U.S. in 1960, and while still working for the State Department, Robbins began to lecture informally on African art. In those early post-colonial years, Robbins saw the growing interest in African nations as an opportunity to educate the public about the vitality of African art and culture. He developed an early training paper for the Peace Corps entitled "Tradition and Transition in African Art." Many of the early Peace Corps volunteers went on to become leading scholars in the new fields of African history and art history.
Robbins' own interest led to associations with major African art collectors and the planning of an exhibition of African artifacts. From these beginnings, he established the Center for Cross-Cultural Communication, whose primary function was to develop a museum of African art. When the first Washington, D.C. home of the 19th century black abolitionist, orator and statesman Frederick Douglass appeared on the market, Robbins saw it as an ideal setting for his projected museum and in 1964, the first Museum of African Art in the U.S. opened its doors on Capitol Hill in the historic home of the precursor of the twentieth century civil rights movement.
For three years, Robbins ran the museum without salary and with voluntary help, serving as its curator, director, archivist, public information officer and fundraiser. At times forced to sell works from his modern art collection, Robbins spent much of his personal savings keeping the fledgling project alive. Gradually financial support came from major national and local foundations and from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The museum expanded, acquiring an entire block of row houses to accommodate a collection of approximately 5,000 objects. His staff grew to be more than 30 people, and his operating budget reached $800,000 before the museum was taken over by the Smithsonian. Robbins' friendships with collectors and patrons were instrumental in the formation of the collection, helping to secure the donation of the African art collection and unique photo, slide and film archives of the renowned Life magazine photographer and Africanist Eliot Elisofon.
Robbins made his first trip to the African continent in 1973. During the 1970s, the museum became an increasingly important force in cultural, educational, diplomatic and political circles in the nation's capital. In a 1975 speech before Congress, Senator Hubert Humphrey praised Robbins as a "national treasure... [and] a man of great depth and understanding not only of the cultures of the African continent, but of our own society as well." Indeed, it is Robbins' passionate belief in the potential of African art to inspire both a deeper appreciation and an understanding of our own social values that has informed his many speeches and essays.
Eventually, the museum became far too large to be a private effort, and in 1979, following three years of intensive lobbying by Robbins, Congress voted to merge the museum with the Smithsonian. In 1987, the National Museum of African Art opened as part of a new $75 million Smithsonian complex on the Federal Mall. The museum currently boasts a staff of 58, with an annual budget of approximately four million dollars. Since 1982, Robbins has held the title of Founding Director Emeritus and Senior Scholar of the Museum, and its library is named in his honor.
His long tenure as director of the museum enabled Robbins to articulate a philosophy of museums as instruments of social education. Robbins combines the insights of an art historian, an ethno-historian, an aesthetician, and a cultural anthropologist to foster the appreciation of the universal creative potential of humankind. While some critics fault him for lack of academic training, Robbins, with two widely used books to his credit, as well as the only museum dedicated to African art, believes that it is his non-academic approach that has enabled him to translate the work of scholars into a verbal and visual language accessible to the public. Keenly aware of the often conflicting expectations of the museum audiences, he is critical of exhibitions which are too scholarly in approach for the general public, and which thus alienate a large percentage of viewers with limited background in African art history.
Ideally, Robbins believes, exhibitions should convey a broad sense of creativity in African cultures rather than presenting one or two objects in pristine isolation. To achieve this, he advocates, for instance, displaying multiple examples of particular mask or figure types as a means for revealing important similarities and differences. Moreover, Robbins believes the inclusion of textiles and utilitarian objects as additional reflections of a culture is essential for a deeper appreciation of creative transition. This point was well proven with the enthusiastic public response to the recent show at the Slusser Gallery. Because much traditional African art was created for use in ritual contexts, Robbins advocates including music, photographs and film footage with exhibits to convey the performative setting absent from most museums.
If Robbins foregrounds the museum's responsibility toward the general public, he still recognizes and values the research component in any museum's program. His own publication of two important volumes on African Art in American Collections embodies his dual vision; while drawing upon the scholarly research of numerous specialists, he nevertheless presents the information in clear, accessible language. The second volume, co-authored with Nancy Ingram Nooter, with 1600 illustrations, is the most comprehensive single volume photo survey of African art yet produced.
Throughout Robbins' writings, one is struck by his joyful appreciation of the visual and cultural expressiveness of African arts. His cognizance of modern art's debt to these works is also clear. It seems fitting, then, that the Slusser Gallery of the School of Art and Design exhibited his textile collection, which he hopes it will provide another dimension of inspiration for a new generation of fine artists.
Pamela McKee and Michelle-Lee White are graduate students in History of Art.