What’s planned for inside the International African American Museum

The International African American Museum won’t be your typical history museum packed with statues and centuries-old objects.

While traditional exhibits and artifacts are certainly part of the plan at this point, the emphasis will be placed more on visitors’ surroundings, to draw their attention to the Charleston museum’s greatest asset: its location on the site of Gadsden’s Wharf where nearly half the country’s enslaved Africans arrived in chains.

“The International African American Museum is not a traditional collecting museum,” said Executive Director Michael Moore. “The most important artifact is the land itself.”

That’s a major reason the one-story rectangular building will be propped up on pillars, to keep the space on the ground floor open to the sea breeze from the Charleston Harbor.

There, visitors approaching from the eastern side will arrive to contemplate the lives lost on the slave ships in the middle passage at an exhibit Moore said is designed like an infinity pool, with portraits of people just underneath the water. 

Nearby will be a brick outline of a warehouse that once existed there to house slaves after they disembarked from the ships. Sometimes, they were kept there for weeks, and in the winter of 1806, about 700 people froze to death inside. 

Moore said those areas will encourage visitors to fully grasp the site’s sacred history, to pay respects to those who perished there.

“The east end toward the water has a much more quiet, contemplative nature,” he said.

From the west, visitors might enter in the midst of a cultural dance performance or some other interpretive demonstration meant to engage visitors with the museum’s location. 

“The side facing the city will be a bit livelier,” Moore said.

The stairs leading up to the museum are in the center of the building, and like on the ground level, the exhibit space about as long as a football field will be divided into two wings. 

The eastern end facing the water will be a series of exhibits — “deep dives” as Moore calls them — into the role slavery played creating a capitalistic economy in America, and how it drove South Carolina and Charleston specifically to become an engine of wealth for the rest of the country. Another gallery will explore the rise of the Gullah Geechee culture in the Southeast. 

Moore said the wing’s most prominent feature will be its “Atlantic Reflections” gallery overlooking the harbor. It explores the tapestry of cultures and languages West Africans brought with them when they arrived at Gadsden’s Wharf and other entry points in America. 

“There’s a misconception the people that came here were this monolithic group,” Moore said. “That will tie into the museum’s international aspect.”

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Atlantic Connections gallery in the International African American Museum

The Atlantic Connections gallery overlooking the Cooper River will be a space for visitors to contemplate the exact place enslaved Africans entered the country on Gadsden’s Wharf. Provided

The other side of the museum will walk visitors through a linear narrative of African-American history beginning with slaves’ first arrival in America in the 15th century. It culminates on the west end with the Center of Family History, where people of African descent can research their family’s roots with on-site genealogists. 

The center will also offer DNA testing to indicate regions of Africa individuals might have descended from. 

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The International African American Museum's Center for Family History

People of African descent will be able to trace their heritage in the Center for Family History in the west side of the International African American Museum. Provided

“That’s going to be a life-changing experience, to get a fuller understanding of your identity,” Moore said.

Museum officials are now in the process of acquiring artifacts to curate the exhibits.

One potential feature Moore is especially interested in is a pair of rocks from Bunce Island. That island, off Freetown, Sierra Leone, was where hundreds of thousands of slaves were kept before being placed on ships bound for South Carolina and Georgia. 

The rocks the museum hopes to exhibit are the last two in a stone jetty that captive Africans stepped off of to board the slave ships.

“We want to make that a tangible kind of thing, something that you can actually go up and touch, and thereby perhaps touch something that an ancestor of yours touched generations ago,” Moore said.

The concepts for the museum’s interior are still in flux and are expected to evolve as exhibits are curated and design elements are finalized. 

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