Photo by Ruta Smith

More than 18,000 people have walked through the quiet display rooms of the new International African American Museum since it opened June 27.  

And get this — they’re so engaged with what they experience that they’re staying just under two hours on average, said Dr. Tonya Matthews, the museum’s president and CEO. And that, she said in an exclusive interview, has surprised her.

“When people come into the museum, they immediately gather and start having conversations [with others], and that is what we were hoping for,” she said in a modern corner office overlooking the grassy, hilly entrance to the modern building.

Before the museum opened, organizers worried people wouldn’t talk much to others or even among themselves as they strolled through powerful exhibits that highlight the Black experience from times of slavery to today. 

“But it has happened. Folks are lingering,” she observed. “Yes, the average time inside the museum is just under two hours. And inevitably, folks say, ‘I have to come back.’ Museums are not intended to be one-and-done. I’m so very pleased it’s going so well.”

Many might not have expected the new museum, the second-largest museum devoted to the African American story, to rocket to quick success, especially when it took 23 years for it to mature from idea to reality.

But tickets generally are sold out a week in advance. Up to 900 people walk through on any given day from Tuesday through Sunday — and that’s without the school groups that will flood through in the fall and spring.

How you might get in at the last minute

Matthews said the museum generally has some walk-up availability on weekdays. Weekends are just plain busy. On Aug. 4, for example, the first available tickets are Aug. 8.  

Museum staff also are working on creating a more orderly way for people who didn’t get tickets online to see the exhibits.  Within a couple of weeks, anyone interested in visiting should be able to call the museum’s general phone number (843-872-5352) to learn whether there will be any walk-up availability for that day. The likely chance that there will be availability on that day — about 50%, Matthews guessed.

What’s been exciting, frustrating

Matthews said she’s been surprised with how visitors are thrilled about the space.

“You know, we do tell some heavy stories,” she said. “And we talk about some challenging times. But people have been excited to be in a space that tells these stories.

“I think for our African American audiences, folks are excited to be reflected. They see themselves. They see stories in this very beautifully designed space that are authentically told.  And I think for our non-Black audiences, they seem excited to be welcomed into the conversation.”

The museum, she says, offers a kind of sanctuary with a great vibe where there is “no yelling or screaming at people. It’s just sort of telling the stories. There’s a sense of community when you walk in.”

Since the museum opened in June, Matthews said there have been few big challenges or disappointments. There have been some staffing and logistic issues.  But, she said, they work quickly to solve problems.

“In these early days and in these early phases, we’ve come up with problems or issues about things we need to learn better,” she said. “It’s the art of being a startup business.  

“I know we’ve been talking about this for 23 years, but you know, we’re a business that’s essentially less than 50 days old.”

The museum, located along the Cooper River in Charleston, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, except on Mondays.  

Love Best of Charleston?

Help the Charleston City Paper keep Best of Charleston going every year with a donation. Or sign up to become a member of the Charleston City Paper club.