Over twenty years in the making, the International African American Museum is now open in Charleston, South Carolina. As the website states, this museum “documents the journey that began in Africa centuries ago and continues to this day.” During those two decades, much thought and planning went into every detail of this institution, including the exact location and the very land it would inhabit.
Southern Living recently spoke with the museum’s president and CEO, Dr. Tonya Matthews and she explained this further. “The museum had the opportunity to reclaim a portion of Gadsden’s Wharf, former site of our nation’s most prolific trans-Atlantic slave trading port. And by prolific meaning nearly 50% of all enslaved Africans that came to what is now the United States would have come into this space,” she said.
“Beyond just having and inheriting a power of place, once we began the design phase, everything also became very intentional about how we honor that space and all of the emotions that go along with that.”
Dr. Matthews stressed that everyone who worked on this project from start to finish had to really understand the reverence of the undertaking. This extended to the architect chosen for the project, Henry Cobb. “He came to the conclusion that his job was to design a building for which the ground it stood upon would always be more important than the building itself. And because of that, he decided that therefore the building wouldn’t even touch the ground.”
Instead, the building was constructed sitting atop eighteen pillars that are thirteen feet tall. Matthews insisted that there is no hidden significance to the numbers, that’s just what it took to make the building structurally sound.
With the building raised off of the ground, that more than doubled the amount of space they had to work with so the exteriors of the building became just as important and as intentional as what they put inside the building itself. Landscape architect Walter Hood designed the African Ancestors Memorial Garden. One of the defining features of this garden is the Tide Tribute that is right at the edge of the property. “The installation on the bottom of the tide tribute is an art installation that was inspired by the Brookes Diagrams. Showing how Africans may have been packed into the bottom of slave ships. And the waters in that tide tribute pool are powered by a pumping system that raises and lowers the water every other hour like the tide. So it’s a moment of reflection, depending on how you’re embracing it. Are you seeing the people we lost there? Are you seeing the people who refused to let go and came through this space?” Matthews explained.
Once you enter the building you will first encounter the Transatlantic Gallery, a large-scale immersive media experience that will give visitors an overview of what is to come in the entire museum, which covers hundreds of years of history. As Matthews explained, the journey through the museum will tell the whole story of the African American experience. “From ancient African civilizations all the way up to modern times, America across the diaspora,” she said.