This inviting little museum does not get the foot traffic of its larger, better-known sister Smithsonians, but that only makes for a better experience for those who do visit. Find it by strolling through the Enid A. Haupt Garden, under which the subterranean museum lies, and enter via the doors of the domed pavilions to descend to the galleries, picking up a self-guided tour flyer at the information desk, as you go.
Traditional and contemporary African music plays lightly in the background as you tour the dimly lit suite of rooms on three sublevels. The galleries rotate works from the museum’s 9,100-piece permanent inventory of ancient and modern art, spanning art forms and geographic areas. (The museum owns the largest public holdings of contemporary African art in the United States.) Sometimes the museum emphasizes a particular region in its choice of exhibited art, as in 2014 when “Visions of the Forests” displayed a selection of the little-known artworks of Sierra Leone and Liberia. Masks, jewelry, textiles, and small stone figures from the 15th to the 18th centuries were among the highlights. A tour of the museum at any time turns up diverse discoveries: a circa 13th to 15th century ceramic equestrian figure from Mali, face masks from Congo and Gabon, a 15th-century Ethiopian manuscript page; and a commanding, mixed-media sculpture of Haiti’s liberator, Toussaint Louverture, Toussaint Louverture et La Vieille Esclave, by Senegalese artist Ousmane Sow.
The African Art Museum was founded in 1964, joined the Smithsonian in 1979, and moved to the Mall in 1987. If you descend to sublevel 3, you will reach the subterranean passage that takes you to the Ripley Center and to the Sackler Gallery.