The late Boston architect Henry Cobb conceived of the museum’s design. Windows in the long, narrow plain building are adorned inside and out with faux shutters and trim made from brown Ipe, a durable and dense Central and South American wood. | CP file photo by Ruta Smith

Technicians are at the halfway point in stabilizing the temperature and humidity levels in the International African American Museum (IAAM) that has many more artifacts now than originally envisioned in the museum’s initial design.

The museum was scheduled to open Jan. 21, but a delay in adjusting the environmental conditions inside the building to protect the artifacts has stalled the opening. So far, no opening date has been set, but officials have said it would be in the first half of the year.

Delays and changes have increased the museum’s cost from $75 million to nearly $100 million. The City of Charleston owns the building, and will lease it annually to the IAAM for $1.

In the late spring of 2022, technicians started making adjustments to the environment in the building, said Edmund Most, Charleston’s deputy director of the parks department. In that role, he also manages the city’s capital projects division. It has been difficult, he said, to stabilize conditions during the interior construction work.

“It really takes about a year for a museum to experience all [the] weather changes … to have the system functioning properly,” he said. “I am not saying it is going to take a year, but we are getting closer and closer. We have a team of people working on that, looking at the numbers constantly.”

The museum is experiencing “true environment issues which is not uncommon for a new institution such as this,” Keshia Kirkland, the museum’s public and community relations manager, said in an email when asked if the delayed opening is the result of a scheduling conflict with a VIP attending the opening ceremony or with perfecting the event. “We need a little more time to get things right. We understand the public’s frustration, but [we are] grateful for their grace to ensure we are opening in a premier fashion.”

Although the museum’s opening was set for Jan. 21, some of the exhibits are still being built, Most said. Crews are “putting the final touches on displays,” he said. “They have been doing some outside work in the garden space.” 

Protecting what’s on display

Controlling the environment inside the 150,000-square-foot-building is necessary to protect exhibits and artifacts, Most said. The IAAM will have a variety of artifacts on display, but a precise number was not immediately available. The Charleston Museum, which recently celebrated its 250th anniversary, has more than 2.4 million objects in its collection and about 6,000 artifacts in exhibit at the museum and at its two historic properties, the Joseph Manigault House and the Heyward-Washington House.

Most said museum artifacts should not be “exposed to varying humidity percentages, whether it is dry or very, very humid,” he said. Most would rather not define the environmental concerns in the IAAM as a problem. Instead, he said, the monitoring and adjusting is similar to a “shake-down cruise” to fix anomalies in a new ship’s operation.

The museum has not compiled a list of artifacts alongside the desired environmental conditions for each item, he said. 

“What we have are desired humidity and temperature ranges called set points,” he said. “We have the temperature there, and we are very, very close on the humidity. But when it gets a little humid or dry we are still not within those parameters.” Due to the constant fluctuations in the local weather it takes longer “to dial in a system” as compared to Washington, D.C., where the climate is more moderate, he explained.

The IAAM’s timeline

In 2000, then-Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. announced his desire to build the museum. The following year, a site across from the South Carolina Aquarium was selected. But three years later, the city paid $3.5 million for land at Gadsden’s Wharf on the Cooper River, which was an entry point for thousands of enslaved West Africans. During the planning stages, museum officials said the IAAM would be different from other local museums in that it would have fewer artifacts. Eyebrows were raised, however, when the museum recently revealed that environmental conditions in the building would place artifacts at risk and that led to delaying the opening.

About four years ago “the initial museum’s consultants and those who worked along with them [decided] it would be great if this museum was really different in terms of what people would see,” said historian Dr. Bernard Powers Jr., who served as the museum’s interim CEO. “There would be a lot of [audio-visuals], interactive exhibits and very few actual artifacts,” he said. “People would see artifacts presented audio-visually and by multi-media productions.

“But as we worked with other museum consultants, we realized increasingly that the museum was already going to be different enough from other museums by way of the themes and the focus of the exhibits but people who come to the museum to see actual things,” said Powers, who chairs the program committee that oversees the thematic design and emphasis of the museum’s galleries. “So when we put all of that together, [the conversation turned to] we need to have more artifacts than we had originally planned for.”

Protecting the collection

The artifacts that are the most sensitive to fluctuating humidity and temperature “include original documents that date back more than 75 years,” Malika N. Pryor, the IAAM’s chief engagement and learning officer, said in an email. “While they are not the sole examples of these kinds of material culture, they have historical relevance. Members of the IAAM team monitor the conditions of their cases daily. [Protecting the items] include the fabrication of replicas as well as the acquisition of similar original documents to allow for more frequent rest of the objects.”

Some objects are too delicate to place on display, she said. They include one-of-a-kind textile and paper items “particularly those that [are a] century old or more,” she said. “Artworks of a similar age or historical significance, usually on paper or canvas, are also considered too delicate to display under current conditions.”

Every museum is confronted with balancing temperature and humidity, but it is more challenging in our semi-tropical climate, said Carl Borick, director of the Charleston Museum. “We are hoping to get a little more consistent on our [humidity and temperature] numbers, but it is a perennial problem.”

When the humidity and temperature balance is not correct, it does not immediately damage the museum’s artifacts, Borick said. “That is something that would happen over time,” he said. That is why it was important for the museum to move from its original site at Rutledge Avenue and Calhoun Street, he said. 

Nostalgic Charlestionians, he said, “speak about how great the old museum was, but the problem with that building was it didn’t have a central [air-conditioning] system. So for all the years the collections were in there, it was not good for them.”

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