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Mon, 02.10.1936

Sylvia Williams born

Sylvia Williams

*Sylvia H. Williams was born on this date in 1936.  She was a Black museum director, curator, art historian, and scholar of African art.   

Sylvia Louise Hill was born and grew up in Lincoln, Pennsylvania. Her father was a professor of English and dean at Lincoln University. She married Charlton Williams, and the couple never had children.

Williams held art history degrees from Oberlin College in 1957 and New York University's Institute of Fine Arts in 1975.  Williams served as a curator in the Department of African, Oceanic and New World Cultures at the Brooklyn Museum in 1973.   In 1983, Williams joined the National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian Institution and in 1987 oversaw the move of the museum to its current location at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. During her time at this museum, she was dedicated to elevating the museum's reputation, whereby she helped the museum acquire more than 845 works of both traditional and modern African art for exhibition, including sculpture, photography, and textiles. She emphasized the importance of connoisseurship in the appreciation and display of African art. 

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.  Williams helped develop the study and appreciation of African art as a significant aesthetic and intellectual pursuit in the United States.  

Sylvia H. Williams died in Washington D.C. at age 60 from complications with a brain aneurysm.On February 28, 1996 the National Museum of African Art of the Smithsonian Institution launched the exhibition The Poetics of the Line: Seven Artists of the Nsukka group, which was also the inaugural exhibition of the Sylvia H. Williams Gallery named in her honor.  

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