The Rollyn Osterweis Krichbaum Memorial Program Fund for the Public Understanding of African Art and Culture was created by Ruth Osterweis Selig, a long-time Smithsonian employee and currently a research collaborator in the National Museum of Natural History’s Department of Anthropology. The Endowment Fund was established in 2012 in memory of Ruth’s identical twin sister. It serves the Warren M. Robbins Library at the National Museum of African Art, supporting scholars-in-residence, public programming, lectures, and exhibitions, as well as book acquisitions.
The endowment honors the career of Krichbaum who, like Selig, dedicated her professional life to education, publications, and museums, working as an editor in the publications department at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Before her untimely death in 1982, Krichbaum helped organize and edit the catalogue Treasures of Ancient Nigeria (text by Ekpo Eyo and Frank Willett), which accompanied an exhibition of international importance organized by the Detroit Institute of Arts. The show opened in Detroit, which took special pride in the inauguration of this historic exhibition. It was the first comprehensive display of Nigerian art in the United States and the first time the Nigerian government permitted a major loan of its art treasures spanning over 2,000 years. Featuring over 100 objects, many uncovered in the previous 40 years, the exhibition showcased masterworks in bronze, ivory, and terracotta.
From January 1980 through August 1984, the exhibition traveled to ten major North American cities, including San Francisco, New York, Washington DC, Calgary, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. Everywhere it went, it garnered enthusiastic reviews. The catalogue sold tens of thousands of copies and was translated into several languages when the show continued on to European venues. Krichbaum considered her involvement with Treasures of Ancient Nigeria and especially her collaboration with the esteemed Nigerian art historian Ekpo Eyo (Director of the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments) as the most important work of her entire career.
The exhibition and book helped shape a deeper understanding of African art and culture in the United States and illuminated the rich African heritage of millions of African Americans. For Krichbaum, who had worked with voter registration efforts in the summer of 1964 and who had co-founded a civil rights group at Wellesley College, her work on Treasures was on a continuum with her commitment to civil rights. In the early 1970s, she married Dan Krichbaum, a Methodist minister at a large church located in the heart of Detroit. She and Dan shared a commitment to improving community relations in urban settings. During the 1960s and 1970s, the world witnessed struggles in both America and Africa for greater freedom and independence, and Krichbaum viewed the exhibition’s importance within that dual context. As she wrote in the journal she kept throughout her struggle with cancer, diagnosed in 1979:
[Treasures] was thrilling from start to finish. [Africa] produced art that rivaled the greatest art in the Western World and I wanted a book that did not contain once either the word “primitive” or “ethnographic.”…Ekpo Eyo was the most cooperative of authors—he came twice to Detroit, taping materials and editing them …[and I applaud him] for his eloquent statements on the hopes he had that this show would put “primitive art” to rest.
As Dr. Eyo concluded his catalogue essay: “These are works which, when properly understood, will not only provide a new chapter to world history but also restore the dignity of man in Africa and wherever people of African descent are dispersed.” Krichbaum described Dr. Eyo greeting her at the exhibition opening in Detroit with a big hug and a knowing look in his eyes: “I knew I had done something special. It was a very special moment in my life and his life.” At the time, Dr. Eyo did not know she was sick; he would write about her two decades later, “She was a great and invaluable friend….”
In recognition of Krichbaum’s commitments, values, and editorial work, Selig established an endowed program fund through which her sister’s contribution to the field of African art will live on by supporting acquisitions and special programming at the Warren M. Robbins Library. Because Selig has made gifts for over 20 years to help librarian Janet Stanley purchase volumes for the library, it now contains over 300 African art books with memorial bookplates honoring Krichbaum, in addition to the new Program Fund.