In 1964 a privately-funded Museum of African Art (MAA) was established by Warren M. Robbins, a former American foreign service officer, at the Frederick Douglass house in Washington, D.C. Robbins served as first Director of MAA, which mounted exhibitions of traditional African artwork and developed educational programs to foster public insight and appreciation of the cultures and artistic achievements of Africa. When MAA became a bureau of the Smithsonian Institution on August 13, 1979, its collections included some eight thousand objects of African sculpture, costumes, textiles, musical instruments, and jewelry; numerous books on African culture and history; early maps of Africa; educational materials; and photographs, slides, and film segments on African art, society, and environment bequeathed to the Museum by world-renowned photographer Eliot Elisofon.
In 1981 MAA was renamed the National Museum of African Art (NMAfA). The following year Robbins became Founding Director Emeritus and John E. Reinhardt assumed responsibility as Acting Director. Sylvia H. Williams was appointed Director of NMAfA in 1983.
Staff of NMAfA has included Warren M. Robbins, Director, 1964-1981, and Founding Director Emeritus, 1982- ; John E. Reinhardt, Acting Director, 1981-1982; Sylvia H. Williams, Director, 1983- ; Jean M. Salan, Assistant Director for Administration, 1979-1980, Assistant Deputy Director, 1981-1982, and Assistant Director, 1983- ; Lydia Puccinelli, Curator of Collections, 1979- ; Roy Sieber, Associate Director for Collections and Research, 1983- ; Roslyn A. Walker, Research Curator, 1981- ; and Edward Lifschitz, Academic Coordinator, 1979-1982, and Curator of Education, 1983- .