Sylvia Williams – Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art

African art scholar Sylvia H. Williams, directed the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, 1983-1996, and was one of the few women, and the only African American woman, serving at the time as director of a major American museum.*

Sylvia Williams photo

Sylvia Williams directed installation of five inaugural exhibitions and more than 20 other exhibitions of traditional and modern art, including sculpture, photography, textiles and utilitarian objects. Under her direction, the museum acquired 845 works of art.*

Sylvia Williams exhibtion

A scholar of African art, Ms. Williams served as a curator in the Department of African, Oceanic and New World Cultures at the Brooklyn Museum before coming to Washington. In 1994-95 she was curator of the exhibition “Mohammed Omer Khalil, Etchings/Amir I. M. Nour, Sculpture.”**

Petra I
Petra I by Mohammad Omer Khalil 1989-1990 Etching and aquatint on paper. H x W: 90.1 x 60.3 cm (35 1/2 x 23 3/4 in.)

Sylvia Williams was a graduate of Oberlin College and received a master’s degree in art history from New York University. She also studied library science at Columbia University and French and German at the Ecole Practique de l’Alliance Francaise in Paris.****

In 1983, Williams received a Candace Award for History from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women.  In 1989, she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters by Amherst College, and the following year (1990), she received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts by Oberlin College.She served as president of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) from 1994-1995. (Award information below. See memorial information below.) 


Art Image: Petra I by Mohammad Omer Khalil

Currently not on display found at*** ****


Candace Award:


Perlik, William (March 9, 1996). “Memorial Minute, Sylvia Hill Williams class of ’57, ’90 honorary trustee”. Oberlin Alumni Magazine (OAM). Oberlin College.


Contemporary Graphics essay in African Art as Philosophy 

David C. Driskell, Michael D. Harris, Wyatt Macgaffey, and Sylvia H. Williams, Astonishment and power, Washington: Published for the National Museum of African Art by the Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993.

Sylvia Williams Papers: The papers of Sylvia H. Williams primarily document her role as a curator at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, 1971-83, and as Director of the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution, 1983-96.  The biographical files, correspondence, clippings, writings, and awards and diplomas provide documentation concerning her education, her interest in art and African Art, her work at the Brooklyn Museum and the Smithsonian Institute, and her accomplishments as a successful African-American woman.  A farewell card, signed by the staff members of the Brooklyn Museum, illustrates the respect and affection that Williams received from her colleagues and friends.

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