New Director's Steady Direction: Roslyn Walker Wants Colorful Galleries, More Exhibits for African Art Museum

By Shaw-Eagle, Joanna | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), February 9, 1997 | Go to article overview

New Director's Steady Direction: Roslyn Walker Wants Colorful Galleries, More Exhibits for African Art Museum


Shaw-Eagle, Joanna, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Roslyn A. Walker, 52, a longtime senior curator at the National Museum of African Art and since last month its director, is eager to get on with the job.

During the photo session for this article, the tall, fast-moving Miss Walker was worried, saying, "I really don't have time for picture taking. I should be talking about our new show, `A King and His Cloth,' instead."

She's a perfectionist who picks up tiny, stray pieces of paper from the gallery floors as the photographer looks for good photo possibilities. Once back in her office, she relaxes and talks about her vision for the museum - the only museum in the United States dedicated to the collection, exhibition and study of African art.

She hasn't come into an easy situation.

Her highly respected predecessor, Sylvia H. Williams, died after a brain aneurysm last February at age 60. Mrs. Williams, generally regarded as a dynamic scholar and director, had been appointed director in 1983, three years before the museum moved to its new building on the Mall. Before that, she was a curator of African art at the Brooklyn Museum for 11 years.

Recently, Warren M. Robbins, founder of the original Museum of African Art on Capitol Hill in 1964, criticized the present museum as "elitist." Writing in The Washington Post, he also pointed out what he considered significant drops in attendance.

While the original museum differed greatly from the one on the Mall, Mr. Robbins did accomplish the astonishing feat of transferring stewardship of the museum - after intensive lobbying in Congress for 15 years - to the Smithsonian in 1979.

After Mrs. Williams became director, she and Mr. Robbins clashed over the direction of the museum. In June 1995, the Smithsonian abolished Mr. Robbins' $90,000-a-year position as Museum of African Art senior scholar. He is suing the Smithsonian. He still retains his title of founding director emeritus.

Mr. Robbins is enthusiastic about Miss Walker, who worked for him in 1968-69 and in 1981.

"I believe," he says, "that she will provide the proper balance between the aesthetic and academic excellence of the Smithsonian affiliation, and the popular appeal the museum had in Washington when it was a private institution."

None of the turmoil worries the new director. Though soft-spoken, with a self-deprecating sense of humor, Miss Walker definitely is her own person.

"How can you ask about my game plan," she jokes, "when I haven't had time to put it in place?" She was appointed director Jan. 15.

Roy Sieber, the dean of African art scholars and the museum's associate director from 1983 to 1993, believes she brings special qualities to the job.

He points out she is a committed scholar who has headed other museums before coming to Washington.

"She's one of the world's nicest people, but she's also tough. She has a thread of steel in her makeup," Mr. Sieber says.

Discussing her appointment, Miss Walker emphasizes that "Sylvia Williams had her own style, and I'll have my own style because I'm myself." In addition, she says, "We can always do more, and do what we're doing better."

* * *

One of her primary tasks will be to make the museum more accessible. She wants the institution to be open not only to white and black people from Washington, but "to the people who want to come and see our collections from all over the world."

She plans to make a stronger appeal to the African immigrant community here, as well as to the large black presence in Washington.

Miss Walker points out that the museum's earlier years as part of the Smithsonian were devoted to building a collection of first-rate African art, which now numbers about 6,515 objects.

She aims to build on the museum's successful educational programs by offering educational products, such as CD-ROMs and slide kits of the permanent collection, for use in schools. …

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