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And still we rise

After 20 years of planning, the International African American Museum has launched, reclaiming one of the US’s most sacred and traumatic historic spaces. President Tonya Matthews tells Magali Robathan why the launch is so significant

Dr Tonya Matthews Photo: Jeremy Ives
The International African American Museum Photo: Greg Noire
Dr Tonya Matthews was appointed president and CEO of lAAM in 2021 Photo: IAAM
The permanent exhibitions feature historical objects, art and digital content Photo: Greg Noire
The building was designed by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners and Moody Nolan Photo: Ellis Creek Photography
Because the museum is on a floodplain, it’s elevated on 18 concrete columns Photo: Greg Noire
Ralph Appelbaum Associates worked on the exhibition design Photo: Greg Noire
The museum building hovers 13ft above Gadsden’s Wharf Photo: Jim Sink Photography
Opening events included a worship service at nearby Morris Brown AME Church Photo: Clay Williams

Gadsden’s Wharf, in Charleston, South Carolina, was one of America’s most prolific slave trading ports. It is estimated that as many as 45 per cent of enslaved Africans entered the US via Gadsden’s Wharf, and it has been estimated that up to 80 per cent of African Americans can trace their ancestry to the enslaved men and women that passed through the port.

Now, after 20 years of planning, the International African American Museum (IAAM) has opened on the site with a mission to reclaim the space. Opened on 27 June, IAAM tells the ‘unvarnished story of the international African American experience via storytelling, interactive exhibitions, artefacts and the power of place’.

“When I’m standing in our African American Memorial Garden on the edge of Gadsden’s Wharf, looking at the port of entry, I feel joyful,” Tonya Matthews, president of the IAAM, tells me.

“When I stand in that space and the waters are rising, I am joyful because I know that someone survived out of that place, and had a baby, who had a baby, who had a baby, who had a baby, who had me. Now I’m here, and I’m in a position to help reclaim this site.

“Not everyone will feel that way, but for me it’s a place of joy, because I feel like I’m doing something that was dreamed and hoped for there.”

The International African American Museum explores the African American experience and its impact across the world via nine permanent galleries and one special exhibitions gallery – a 3,000sq ft space dedicated to temporary, rotating exhibits.

The museum is currently showcasing a traveling exhibition from the Smithsonian entitled Men of Change: Power. Triumph. Truth.

The IAAM building has been designed by architecture firms Pei Cobb Freed & Partners and Moody Nolan. The exhibition designers were Ralph Appelbaum Associates.

The single storey structure is held 13 feet above the ground by 18 columns. The African Ancestors Memorial Garden – designed by landscape designer Walter Hood – features the Tide Tribute, a water feature that depicts engraved outlines of enslaved people packed together on a slave ship. Based on the 18th century Brooks map, the outlines are covered and revealed as the tide changes, emphasising the ‘fluidity of the past, present and future’.

Here, Tonya Matthews shares the highs and lows of the journey to opening:

Can you sum up what the International African American Museum is about?
The mission of the museum is to honour the untold stories of the African American journey at one of our nation’s most sacred sites.

When we talk about honouring the African American journey, it’s important to honour it in its full context. We talk about origin stories at IAAM, about the places and communities that we came from on the continent of Africa, and we also talk about our connection to the African diaspora, modern and historical – the similarities, challenges and cultural connections that still remain.

Within the museum, we talk through what we call truth, trauma and triumph – we’ve got all of it woven together. We do that through art, historical exhibitions and multi-media interactions.

Why is the site so significant?
The museum has been constructed at the former site of Gadsden’s Wharf, our nation’s most prolific transatlantic slave trading port. When it was built in the 1800s, it was the largest port complex in North America and became the primary entry way for enslaved Africans coming to the US on the transatlantic slave trade. It’s very special for us to be able to reclaim that space.

A lot about our design is intentional. When I say we’re at Gadsden’s Wharf, we’re literally there, right on the water, facing the Atlantic Ocean. Charleston Port is still an active port, with big boats coming through. To be able to watch that is ironic, but also grounding and freeing. The theme of water and being in conversation with the ocean as a point of both separation and connection is something that also lends itself to the museum.

What have been the biggest challenges of getting to this point?
Some of the biggest challenges were political buy in – convincing the community that this was possible. We’re in the United States, in the Deep South, in South Carolina – we don’t talk about these stories in public. The idea that we could build something extraordinary that told these kinds of stories in the way that folks would want to listen was kind of beyond belief 20 years ago.

In our earliest days, this began with the idea of creating a museum that told the story of slavery and enslavement, but as the conversation broadened and more people came to the table, it was clear that that wasn’t enough. We didn’t want to just tell the middle of the African American story – we wanted to include the past and the present. Curating those ideas has been quite a journey.

We’ve had some technical construction and supply chain issues, but those physical things are in the ‘this too shall pass’ category. There are blueprints for how to build a building, but there are no blueprints for how to build a culture, bring the community to the table and how to steward and shepherd stories that are not your own. Those have been some of the most challenging things we’ve dealt with.

Your staff have all had to undergo cultural competency and empathy training so that they can support visitors to the museum. Why is this important?
When we say we want to be able to welcome all folks, all ages, all backgrounds, all knowledge bases and cultures to the museum, we have a responsibility to be ready for when people answer the call.

We want to be prepared to welcome visitors no matter where they’re coming from, to recognise, invite and welcome people with different ranges of emotions and experiences. It was important to be intentional about that level of preparation.

Some of our first training was internal; about trying to figure out where our own triggers were and how ‘culturally competent’ we were. The next stage was book club. There’s something special about reading a book together – learning the art of conversation and listening is essential as we’re welcoming visitors.

As we continue, we’ll be leaning into some of our own trainings, and we’re considering some partner trainers.

Can you pick out one of your favourite areas of the museum?
One of the spaces that’s particularly meaningful to me is in the African Ancestors Memorial Garden outside the museum. When we were doing the pre-archaeological dig for the space, we found archaeological foundations of a storage house on the wharf. Historic records show that on a particularly cold winter, 700 enslaved individuals died while being held in storage, and it turns out that our building was one of those storage houses.

In that space, there’s a one-dimensional brick outline of the foundations of the warehouse with two black granite walls cutting across the outline, almost like a doorway. The outside of the wall is rough, the inside is polished so smoothly, it acts like a mirror. Inside the two walls are a series of kneeling, hunched figures, representing those that died there.

As the figures get closer and closer to the water, they appear to be emerging from the concrete, and on the outside of the walls, we’ve inscribed the Maya Angelou poem, And Still I Rise.

It’s one of my favourite spaces because it provokes so many different emotions simultaneously.

Can you highlight the story of a particularly significant exhibit?
In our Carolina Gold Gallery – which talks about the industry of slavery – we exhibit Ashley’s Sack, one of our most significant artefacts. It’s a mid 1800s cloth sack given by an enslaved woman named Rose as a parting gift to her nine-year-old daughter Ashley. The story of the sack is embroidered on the outside by Ashley’s grand-daughter.

It’s a gentle way of reminding visitors that we’re talking about an institution that separated families again and again. One of the embroidered lines reads: This sack is filled with my love, always. It’s a very interesting reminder of the lengths people would go to in order to hold on to their humanity. It was important for those children to know: You didn’t come from nothing. You didn’t come from a plantation, or off a ship. You came from love.

I really appreciate the way we’re juggling these kinds of conversations within the museum.

How are you using technology in the museum?
One of the things we’re trying to do is create an energy, so people understand that history is not just the past, it’s the present too. Technology allows things to move, and change – we’ve got lots of mini videos and clips and images which convey emotion.

We also use technology’s ability to hold a lot of information in small spaces. We have a digital engagement table that has hundreds of historic sites across South Carolina that people can consider visiting. It’s a geographical oriented interactive map that also allows us to add more spaces as the museum evolves.

We also have a ground-breaking genealogy and ancestry research centre, the Center for Family History. We’re connected to the largest genealogy databases in the world, as well as our own archives, and technology allows us to help people dig into their history and to work with people virtually. A lot of our systems testing was happening during the pandemic, which taught us a lot. We’ll continue to work in a hybrid way.

Can you pick out a particularly joyful part of the museum?
When you first enter the museum, we have a gallery called Transatlantic Experiences, which features a series of eight 12ft screens programmed together but not identically. It covers the entire storyline of the museum – you’re taking this rollercoaster ride through the African American journey. You feel the joy and the sadness, the connection, the rhythm and the energy.

It has an amazing soundtrack and when you’re watching and we’re drawing comparisons between carnival and historically Black college and university marching bands, or beautiful pictures of kids come up – you can’t help it, you’re smiling. It’s very joyful and energetic.

The gallery offers multiple doorways into the stories we’re telling within the museum. The superpower of IAAM is that we can meet you where you are – maybe you’re into art or history or music. We’ve got it all.

What does this project mean to you personally?
This is a powerful career moment for me. I see a lot in my background that trained me for this moment, although I had no idea at the time. I’ve been in the museum field for more than a decade, but I originally trained as an engineer.

This was not an obvious career path, but when I think about it, I was trained to be a problem solver and to ask the questions no one had asked before. I was trained to make the scary, unscary, as I began teaching in that space. People are tentative around higher math, calculus, algebra and technology. Part of my job was making those subjects manageable, and less intimidating and scary. It’s actually very similar in this space where we’re now talking about racial equity and social justice and history.

The galleries
• African Roots /African Routes

African Roots presents the diverse empires, cultures, historic figures, knowledge systems, and technologies of West and West Central Africa — the origins of Africans forced to the Americas. Key artefacts include an 18th century Islamic Astrolabe as well as masks, currency, and jewellery from West and West Central African ethnolinguistic groups.

• American Journeys

The American Journeys Gallery presents key moments, figures, and movements in African American history that are interconnected with South Carolina, showing how they shaped, and were shaped, by local, national, and international cultures, politics, and economies.

• Atlantic Worlds

The Atlantic Worlds Gallery explores the nuanced historical connections throughout the Black Atlantic World. Focusing on the major themes of resistance, revolution, creolization, immigration, and the Middle Passage, this gallery explores the deep interconnectivity between Africa, the Americas, and Europe.

• Carolina Gold / Memories of the Enslaved

By examining the roots of the plantation system, the skills and knowledge of Africans from rice-growing regions of Africa, and how enslaved Africans and their descendants created community, kinship, and cultivated resistance, the Carolina Gold Exhibit demonstrates the transformative impact of enslaved people who laboured on plantations in South Carolina and helped build the lucrative rice industry.

• Creative Journeys

The Creative Journeys exhibit consists of artwork, poems, films, and creative materials placed throughout IAAM. These works of art on walls, pedestals, and screens exist in conversation with the historical content of each gallery and provide alternative vantage points for understanding history and the role that creative expression plays in both shaping and reflecting its arc.

• Gullah Geechee

With a focus on the Lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia, the Gullah Geechee Gallery provides an introduction to Gullah Geechee history and culture. Through the exploration of themes including activism, organisation, and cultural practices and preservation, this gallery examines the history of the community as well as contemporary issues facing Gullah Geechee communities.

• South Carolina Connections

This gallery focuses on African American and African diasporic history that is within and historically interconnected to South Carolina. Featuring key artefacts and an interactive map table powered by Google, the South Carolina Connections Gallery provides insight into known and lesser-known South Carolinians, as well as relevant places and events from early colonial settlement to the present.

• Theater Gallery

The Theater Gallery features films and video-based installations, which provide broad historical context and further orient the visitor to the overall museum experience through a narrative storytelling format.

• Transatlantic Gallery

The Transatlantic Gallery provides visitors with a large-scale immersive media experience. Situated as the entry point to the east wing of IAAM, this installation features eight large video screens, which take visitors on a historical journey through hundreds of years of history, from African cultural roots to the tragedy of the Middle Passage and into local and international diaspora scenes and traditions.

The Tide Tribute honours enslaved people shackled on ships once anchored in Charleston Harbour / Photo: Greg Noire

Originally published in Attractions Management 2023 issue 3
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