Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas (AAOA)


Scroll and Discs in Relief. (77.8) Mexico; Maya. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of G. L. Lespinasse, 1877.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has acquired objects from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas since its earliest years (see above). The objects were held across several curatorial departments, including Asian Art, American Art, Musical Instruments and Arms & Armor. Among the Museum's original holdings were Precolumbian gold objects from the Alice K. Bache collection; Peruvian pottery from the Nathan Cummings Collection; African sculpture from Lester Wunderman; and Indonesian textiles. The department's holdings were greatly expanded with the transfer of the Michael C. Rockefeller Collection.

It wasn't until 1969 that a Department of Primitive Art was first founded around the objects for their care and acquisitions. Dudley T. Easby, Jr., who had been the Museum's Secretary for twenty-three years, was named Consultative Chairman of the newly-created department. He held that title until his retirement in 1971. His place was taken by Robert Goldwater, who held the position until his untimely death in 1973. He was succeeded by Douglas Newton, who would later become the Department's first full Chairman.

A permanent gallery space for the department had to await the completion in 1982 of the 42,000 square foot Michael C. Rockefeller Wing (Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates) on the south side of the Museum — a conceptual mirror image to the Dendur Wing on the north side.

The name of the department was changed to the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas by vote of the Museum's Board of Trustees on March 12, 1991.

AAOA Exhibition Program

Since 1983 the Department has devoted a portion of its gallery space to small-scale special exhibitions on selected topics. The exhibitions, on average three in every two years, have been accompanied in most instances by scholarly publications.

Visual Resource Archive

The Visual Resource Archive (VRA), formerly known as the Photograph Study Collection, is part of the Museum’s Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, and contains an array of holdings, including photography, audiovisual recordings, and archival collections that are based on contextual materials in all the fields the department covers. The VRA holds more than 200,000 images, ranging from glass and paper negatives, albumen and silver gelatin prints, 35-mm slides, to born digital image files. Several thousand historic postcards, the Photograph Study Collection itself, and images taken by noted authorities Paul Wirz, Anthony Forge, Merle Green Robertson, and Paul Gebauer, are included, as are images taken by Michael C. Rockefeller. Archival collections include the professional papers, manuscripts, correspondence, and images of internationally known anthropologists/scholars such as Phillip J.C. Dark, Tobias Schneebaum, and Paul Fejos, as well as the records of New York’s Museum of Primitive Art.

Hours and Access

The Visual Resource Archive is open by appointment only. Appointment requests must be received at least 24 hours in advance. To make an appointment via email, please contact: gro.muesumtem|evihcrAecruoseRlausiV.AOAA#gro.muesumtem|evihcrAecruoseRlausiV.AOAA

Tuesday–Thursday 10:00 a.m.–12:30 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. to 4:45 p.m.
Advance appointments are required. (Closed in August.)
Telephone: 212-650-2823
Fax: 212-396-5039

The Museum of Primitive Art (1954-1975)


There are a number of claimants to the title of the first American museum to display so-called primitive art not as anthropology or ethnology but as art qua art. Some of these are themselves art museums — The Brooklyn Museum1, the Museum of Modern Art2, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. But arguably the first such museum dedicated solely to displaying the arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas was The Museum of Primitive Art.

In 1954 Nelson Rockefeller chartered a new museum "devoted to the artistic achievements of the indigenous civilizations of the Americas, Africa, and Oceania …." In the preface to the Museum's first exhibition catalog in 19573, the founder and museum President expands on the Museum's mission:

However, we do not wish to establish primitive art as a separate kind or category, but rather to integrate it, with all its amazing variety, into what is already know of the arts of man. Our aim will always be to select objects of outstanding beauty whose rare quality is the equal of works shown in other museums of art throughout the world, and to exhibit them so that everyone may enjoy them in the fullest measure.

Between its first exhibition in 1957 and the closing one in 1975 the "MPA" presented eighty-five exhibitions and produced sixty-three publications on relevant topics. While the Museum collected actively during these years, it did not maintain permanent exhibition space. Exhibitions might feature objects from both the permanent collection and other public and private collections.

The success of the Museum of Primitive Art was due in large measure to the collaboration among four extraordinary and dissimilar individuals: Nelson Rockefeller, founder and president; René d'Harnoncourt, vice-president; Robert Goldwater, director; and Douglas Newton, the museum's founding curator.

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In May of 1969, at the opening of the exhibition Art of Oceania, Africa, and the Americas From the Museum of Primitive Art, Nelson Rockefeller announced the transfer of the entire Museum of Primitive Art collection, as well as his personal collection — in total over 4,000 objects — to The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Collectively the gift is known as The Michael C. Rockefeller [Memorial] Collection [of Primitive Art].

Exhibitions at the Museum of Primitive Art

Archive of the Museum of Primitive Art

The MPA Archive preserves the rich historical legacy of the former museum. It contains 145 linear feet of materials including approximately 1,200 black-and-white, 8- by 10-inch photographs of MPA special exhibition installations; administrative documents; ephemera (promotional materials, pamphlets, newspaper clippings); and realia such as the metal lettering of the museum's name from the facade of the building.

The contents of the archive have been cataloged and are accessible via an in-house database that includes over 9,700 records. Access to the image database and materials is by advance appointment only. For further information please contact the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10028, at 212-650-2823 (telephone) or 212-396-5039 (fax).

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