The International African American Museum (IAAM), which opened last June in Charleston, South Carolina, has been a long time coming – 23 years, in fact.
The venue tells the stories of the African American experience across generations, including the historic trauma and triumph, as well as addressing racism today. Built on a historically significant site, the museum comprises eight core galleries, a special exhibitions gallery and a sprawling African Ancestors Memorial Garden that provides a contemplative space for visitors.
Malika Pryor-Martin, the chief learning and engagement officer at the IAAM, tells us about the venue.
What stalled the project?
Malika Pryor-Martin: Challenges, conceptually and literally, have been formidable and were only exacerbated by Covid. Then, in 2022, our humidity systems further delayed us. However, having the delays meant that Black Lives Matter, the largest civil rights movement in recorded history, could be included.
Was everyone on board?
No. Some questioned the necessity for an African American Museum and Memorial. Others, Black Charlestonians and Lowcountry residents, challenged the institution’s ability to be inclusive, including its representation of the Gullah Geechee community (descendants of the rice-growing region of West Africa who were enslaved on the rice, indigo and Sea Island cotton plantations of the lower Atlantic coast).
A tragic turning point was the Mother Emanuel church massacre in 2015. The murder of those nine church members highlighted how much racialised discord coursed through Charleston. It accelerated the project by changing the minds of those either challenging the museum or standing on the sidelines.
Were there many other challenges?
The museum is about bearing witness on all levels. The threads of tragedy and triumph, of incredible joy and incredible pain, are woven throughout the institution, whether someone is visiting a core exhibition or a special exhibition.
The stories we tell are so incredibly weighty. I’ve been in the museum business for more than 13 years; this was heart and soul work. I’m always brought to tears when I hear the voice of a formerly enslaved person describing their life and labour, talking with absolute conviction about taking their own life if they thought they might be again enslaved.
Yet, while the museum bears witness to difficult histories, visitors are offered the opportunity to feel empowered. The building and the exhibitions are designed to carry you through rather than weigh you down. We hope that the totality of experience is ultimately an uplifting one.
Can you tell us about its location?
Originally, the museum was not going to be where it is now, but the founding architect of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, Henry Cobb [who since died in 2020] discovered that a nearby grassy knoll represented a portion of Gadsden’s Wharf – a place that marked the beginning of the American journey for 100,000 African captives brought here. Cobb was adamant that the museum should be built on this spot to acknowledge its history. The soil is hallowed and sacred.
And the architecture?
The building is single-story and raised 13 feet high above the ground by 18 columns that are wrapped in oyster-shell tabby – a building material made of lime, sand, water and oyster shells used by enslaved Africans on plantations. Under the columns is a free-to-visit African Ancestors Memorial Garden where people can reflect and remember their ancestors.
We have installed a large water feature called Tide Tribute, which mimics the ebb and flow of the tide and is inspired by the 1789 Brooks slave ship diagram, depicting African captives held in its bowels.
Our water feature depicts human bodies as if at the bottom of the ocean and is dedicated to the loss of every man, woman and child through the transatlantic slave trade, their harrowing journey across the Atlantic, and the connections between past, present and future.
And what about the Gullah Geechee Gallery?
The Gullah Geechee culture is an important and sensitive conversation to Charleston and the Lowcountry. Its West African ties, textually, linguistically and in culinary terms, make it unique. When you enter the gallery, images shift across screens to introduce a rich culture. We also have a nearly full-size replica of a Praise House.
This was an opportunity to elevate the impact of the Gullah Geechee people on African American culture. The community has had so much of its creative power extrapolated and monetised. Porgy and Bess, for example, is a musical as American as apple pie. Yet part of the brilliance of the Gershwin brothers’ sound was directly pulled from the Gullah Geechee community, which isn’t widely acknowledged.
What impact has the museum had so far?
More than 50,000 visitors have attended since opening. One of the most important acts that we can do is inform ourselves. It changes how we discuss topics, the way we view the world, and the way we view our neighbours.
Rebecca Swirsky is a freelance writer