There’s a little stretch along the Charleston waterfront just a few hundred yards from the South Carolina Aquarium, where tens of thousands of enslaved people take their first steps in the New World.
The site, Gadsden’s Wharf, was one of the most prolific international slave trading ports in the United States. But until recently, the site made no mention of the slave trade past. It wasn’t until the development of the International African American Museum — a $100 million landmark project that has been more than 20 years in the making — that researchers uncovered the full history of Gadsden’s Wharf.
“We were part of the way Gadsden’s Wharf was recognized in the community and engaged with the community,” said Dr. Tonya Matthews, the museum’s president and general manager. While Gadsden’s Wharf has long been recognized as a historic site, she said, “We weren’t actually talking about what that history was.”
The IAAM, which opens in January, is changing that. Dedicated to “telling the full story of the African-American journey, from ancient African civilization to modern times,” the museum’s nearly 150,000 square feet of space will include nine galleries, as well as a genealogy center where visitors can find help when researching their family history. dr. Matthews said she already sees a strong response from the public.
“We are clearly in a period of acceleration in our conversations about African American history, the African American journey, race and racial justice — and the museum is right in the middle of that,” said Dr. Matthews.
I reached Dr. Matthews via video call at her office in Charleston. Over the course of the interview, she talked about the connection between curiosity and courage, and the relationship between struggle, triumph and joy.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Charleston’s history is closely intertwined with slavery, but that probably isn’t in the eyes of most visitors. Do you think the museum will change the tourist story?
One of the things I’m most excited about is the enthusiasm I see in the Charleston tourist industry to get the museum online. One of the things that I’d like to see, and am proud to be starting to see, is more of an intertwining of the conversation about not just slavery, but African American history more generally, in our city, in our region . And I think we can use the museum — this big, bright, shiny new jewel in our tourism portfolio — to expand that story in Charleston and the Lowcountry.
I would like to hear about the museum building itself, which I know is the work of a very famous person architectural firm.
Mr Henry Cobb is the architect who designed the building. When we explained to him what the museum was about and where we were, he himself took over the language of the site being sanctified. He said it would be one of the biggest challenges of his career to design a building where the ground the building stands on is more important than the building itself. And from that understanding, he decided to place the museum on pillars of 4 meters high, so that even the museum would not touch the ground. That created space underneath, where we have our African Ancestors Memorial Garden, which is open to the public.
What do visitors think in the museum?
One thing I would like to highlight is the Carolina Gold Gallery, where we take a closer look at the story of rice, our cash crop. Here we are talking about innovation and technology, which are usually not words you associate with slavery. But we show how the knowledge and technology of the Africans who were kidnapped and transported to Charleston turned rice production here into a global industry and made us the richest colony in our nascent country. So we tell the whole truth: we talk about the inhumanity of slavery without losing sight of the humanity of the people.
The other one I would like to mention is the Gullah Geechee Gallery. The Gullah Geechee people are an African American community that stretches along the coast from North Carolina to North Florida and has maintained incredible ties to their communities of African origin. You hear it in the language, taste it in the food, see it in the craftsmanship. And many of these things are what South Carolina and the Lowcountry are known for. I’m excited to be able to tell that story, especially since the Gullah Geechee community is still alive, thriving and modern – so we have a living history gallery in a history museum.
Parts of the museum can evoke strong emotions. How do you prepare for that?
We have a real emphasis on cultural competence training and cultural empathy training with our employees. Empathy will have to be one of our superpowers. But I would also say that there is actually a lot of joy on our site, and that has to do with how we put the story of slavery in full context. If you tell the story alone, it is an unfinished story; it is also a traumatic and a sad story. But when you start with the majestic origins of the people and the culture, and you go through this period of slavery and talk about what’s happened since then and how we can move forward, there’s a very different feeling. And that’s when the joy and the triumph and the resilience all come through.
I think visitors will have moments of historical discovery, maybe some moments of self-discovery. And I think there will be moments of validation and recognition as well. I want people to walk away with what I call the “unscratching itch for what’s next.” If we do this right, it will be obvious to anyone walking out of the museum that there is still a lot more to know.
You have a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering and worked at the FDA before moving into the museum world. What inspired your move to public education?
Even as a graduate student and then as a career professional in engineering and technology, I’ve always been drawn to staff development, education, or helping people with technology they didn’t understand. I would use curiosity to inspire people to push themselves just enough to get through science, math, and engineering. And I find the same thing in history: sometimes history requires a little courage. So I use curiosity and storytelling to help people get that extra inspiration to get through the tough stuff.
You earned your bachelor’s degree at Duke and your Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins. Did those experiences influence your work in the museum?
There’s an expression I think everyone is using right now, but it’s definitely an African-American colloquialism: we like to say the struggle is real. I’ve had my share of blessings and privileges that have helped me get to where I am today, but I’ve also had my own struggles and challenges. I know what it’s like to step into unknown waters; to be the first in your family to go through doors and not sure if you will be welcomed. I think things like that do strengthen your empathic muscle, and I’m bringing that to the museum. I think it helps me understand how to support the visitor experience and how we can make the way we tell stories.
It seems that “the struggle is real” could be a theme for the museum itself.
You know, you can’t understand my joy if you don’t understand my story. I’m not saying trauma is necessary to have joy, but it’s like many of the great stories in human history: the struggle makes the triumph much more real, much more meaningful. Understanding how dark it was helps us understand how far we’ve come. It helps us to see that there is no excuse for not completing the rest of the journey, and it gives us confidence that we can get through the period we are in now. It doesn’t tell us how to do it; it just shows us that we can do it.
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