An interior of the IAAM's TransAtlantic Exhibit, a four-minute, large-scale, immersive media experience taking visitors on a journey from African cultural roots through tragedy of the Middle Passage and into local and international diaspora scenes and traditions. Photo provided; by Greg Noire.

The International African American Museum (IAAM) is scheduled to open for visitors on June 27, five months after its January planned opening was delayed due to high humidity and temperatures inside the new building.

Officials also are planning a June 24 opening ceremony at the museum’s Wharfside Street location on the former Gadsden’s Wharf, one of the nation’s most prolific former slave trading ports along the Cooper River. Museum officials have not disclosed details of the much-anticipated opening event. But several activities are planned prior to the IAAM’s official launch, they said.

“We’re excited to open IAAM’s doors and showcase the incredible breadth of African American history,” Dr. Tonya Matthews, IAAM’s president and CEO said in a press release. “IAAM strives not only to provide a space for all visitors to celebrate and connect to this history, to these stories, and to this art, but also to find meaning within their own stories. 

“The African American journey is far longer than the 20 years it took to build this museum, and we are humbly proud to step up and play our part in this story. It is time.”

A month before the museum was set to open Jan. 21, officials delayed the event because of ongoing adjustments to the environmental conditions inside the building to protect more than 700 artifacts dating from the 17th century to contemporary objects. The City of Charleston owns the building, and is leasing it annually to the IAAM for $1. Edmund Most, deputy director of the city’s parks department, told the Charleston City Paper that by late January and early February conditions in the building were improving to make a decision to open the museum.

The museum was initially expected to be completed by March 2022, but then that opening was pushed back to the summer of 2022 and then delayed again until January 2023. Delays and changes have increased the museum’s cost from $75 million to nearly $100 million.

Opening highlighted by milestones

In spite of the delays, Dr. Bernard Powers Jr., a historian who served as the museum’s interim CEO, told the City Paper the opening still comes in 2023 in time to highlight pivotal milestones in Black history in America. He said this year is the 160th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation that freed enslaved people in slave-holding Southern states. This year also is 60 years “beyond the famous march on Washington, the high point of the Civil Rights movement,” Powers said.

The International African American Museum. Image provided; photo by Greg Noire.

The museum’s opening in June also coincides with Juneteenth, the annual commemoration that marks June 19, 1865, as the date when 250,000 enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, learned they had been freed nearly two years earlier by the Emancipation Proclamation. Juneteenth became a national holiday in 2021.

Now that the museum’s June opening “has a relationship to these prior historical events, I hope this will be very positive for the path going forward,” Powers said.

The IAAM’s mission to honor the untold stories of the African American journey and celebrate the connections and contributions to American and global cultures is contained in nine core exhibition galleries and a special exhibition gallery. The museum will also feature a “floating” gallery that weaves contemporary art throughout the long, narrow 150,000 square feet of exhibit space.

The museum sits 13 feet off the ground on 18 cylindrical pillars. At the top of a wide staircase, a glass front entrance reveals a skylight atrium. Inside, contemporary objects along with 1,000 image and media collection pieces will connect the African American journey to its roots and connections to African and African Diaspora communities and cultures. The museum also contains the Center for Family History, a world-class genealogy and ancestry resource center. It began offering genealogy classes and workshops in 2020.

The museum experience will begin outside in the African Ancestors Memorial Garden, an ethnobotanical garden with indigenous plants from West Africa, the Caribbean and the Lowcountry. Sweetgrass is the garden’s most recognizable local plant.

“As this magnificent new museum demonstrates, Charleston isn’t just a city where history happened – it’s a city where history is still being made every day,” Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg said in the museum’s press release. “I couldn’t be prouder of this extraordinary achievement, and of all the people who’ve worked so hard over the past two decades to make it a reality.”

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