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Aug 17, 2023

Post and Courier: Connecting the past to the present: IAAM opening month attracts 14K visitors

  • IAAM in the Media

Written By: Megan Fernandes

As Edith Michel and her sister Tonie walked through the memorial garden during the International African American Museum’s opening weekend, she had a big grin as they posed for a photo, with a dried tear still in the corner of her eye.

“They did a beautiful job here,” she said after walking out of the museum on a hot Saturday afternoon. “It’s reflective and very thoughtfully done. It evokes so much sadness, yet so much inspiration all at once.”

Michel knows a thing or two about museums. She not only manages the education and collections at the Woodrow Wilson House Museum, a National Trust for Historic Preservation Site in Washington, D..C, but she is also a docent at the Smithsonian. Their visit to Charleston was planned entirely around their tickets for IAAM’s opening weekend in June. During their stay, they visited other attractions and tours centered around Black history. 

“Often we think of museums as representations of the past, and while they are, it was great to hear from voices of today,” she said. “Seeing and hearing these stories in different mediums — videos, mini-documentaries and photographs — it connects the past to the present.”

The International African American Museum made its grand debut on June 27, with tickets selling out weeks in advance during its first month.

Opening week attracted upward of 800 museum visitors daily, with more than 19,000 since the museum’s doors opened.

Tickets have consistently sold out every day, according to museum officials. 

With more than 50,000 members between the initial Charter membership and the recently launched Annual Membership program, IAAM staff expect to see a lot of repeat visitors.

Off to a good start

The IAAM has been in the works for more than two decades. It was built at an estimated cost of $120 million on the site of Gadsden’s Wharf, where more than 260,000 enslaved Africans landed in Charleston between 1670 and 1807. More than $125 million in funds were raised during its capital campaign.

The waterfront museum was scheduled to make its public debut in January but the opening was postponed last December over issues that arose with the building’s heating and cooling systems that could affect temperature-sensitive artwork and artifacts.

Museum officials report that in its initial month, there has been an eclectic range of local, national and international visitors. The most popular states that visitors call home include the Carolinas, Georgia, New York and California.

Malika Pryor, chief learning and engagement officer, said there was a lot of intentionality in designing the museum, in how to weave the history, memorials and hope throughout the museum to start an unspoken conversation with visitors. 

In the back of the museum is an expansive window overlooking the harbor, Patriots Point and the boats carrying tourists to Fort Sumter. Beneath is a tide reflection pond symbolizing the tens of thousands of Africans who set foot on Gadsden’s Wharf to be sold as slaves. On each side of the middle passage exhibit is a wall. One has the names of individuals when they left their home countries, and the other has the names they were given once they arrived.

“We know from anecdotal data that patrons are understanding the depth and the richness of the stories we’re telling. We see that, particularly for local residents.”

The IAAM features nine core galleries among other exhibits. More than 700 artifacts are on display dating as far back as the 17th century, as well as more than 1,000 images and media pieces.

During this first month, museum officials learned a lot about the way patrons are interacting with the space and exhibits.

“I need to come back” is the most frequented comment staff has heard.

They’ve learned several key things from visitor behavior: It’s a “multi-visit museum,” meaning folks express a desire to come back again to feel like they’ve seen it in its entirety. People are taking their time moving through exhibits and even backtracking to parts of the museum they’ve already visited. It can be an emotional experience for visitors. While patrons encounter a lot of content to process, they are drawn to the visual and multimedia aspects.

“We’ve built the museum to tell stories in layers,” Pryor said. “For us, what we’re hearing from visitors is confirmation that humanizing history — whether it’s 1525 or 2021 — is part of the magic of the museum. It’s what makes it a space that individuals can feel connected to. History tends to feel distant and disconnected from our present, but drawing that human connection between harrowing historical moments and movements makes it engaging today.”

History is your story

The Center for Family History, which has been pitched as the cornerstone of the work IAAM plans to do, is in the middle of a phased opening.

IAAM officials say that it’s been a popular offering since workshops began last year in the pre-opening phase of the museum.

Pryor said the museum isn’t just about sharing stories beyond the history book, it’s about patrons learning their own history.

“It’s a very personal journey to discover one’s story and ancestors through genealogy,” she said.

As part of an on-site visit, guests can use kiosks to access genealogy records from public databases, attend a workshop or record an interview about their own history in the Story Booth.

As of Aug. 1, patrons can register online for an additional service to personalize their ancestry journey. The center is offering 45-minute virtual consultations with a researcher for $49. Ahead of the appointment, the researcher will have collected the necessary information to start digging through records to present what they know and provide resources on how to continue the research.

In the fall, the museum will open its genealogy reference library on-site to the public for further study.

Looking ahead

Now that IAAM’s doors are open, museum staff are in the early stages of planning on how to extend its programming and partnerships.

Once the S.C. Aquarium’s Boeing Learning Lab is built at the neighboring Maritime Center, it will teach students about marine life by day, but be a community gathering place for nonprofit and community partners, like IAAM, by evening.

IAAM has several close partners, including Explore Charleston, The Gaillard Center and the College of Charleston.

“There is an opportunity to continue to build and grow with those in our community,” Pryor said. “Much of the focus has been programmatic in how we can elevate other institutions with similar missions to ours, like the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, for example.”

With the opening behind IAAM officials, the focus can shift to new events and exhibits.

Work from a South Carolina artist will be on display at the museum Aug. 31-Dec. 3. Fletcher Williams III’s exhibition “When It Rains It Shines” uses sculpture, sound and light to depict a “psychedelic vision of what it is to be in and of the South,” according to the museum. On Oct. 11, IAAM will host a conversation with Williams to discuss the personal and cultural experiences that inspired his first solo museum exhibition.

Museums and historical attractions play a large role in the magnetism that draws more than 7 million visitors to the area and contributes to greater context of the city’s $12.8 billion tourism industry each year. Tourism experts have long speculated about IAAM’s potential to attract visitors interested in the region’s African American culture and history. Michel, and others, were an example of that vision being realized.

Helen Hill, CEO of Explore Charleston, said that history remains one of the biggest draws to the area. The city has a complicated storied past, but the museum plays a role in sharing those stories authentically, she said.

“The IAAM complements the existing tourism landscape and plays a critical role in helping people gain a deeper understanding of African Americans’ experiences and contributions, both past and present,” Hill said. “It provides impressive and powerful educational opportunities and preserves a very important site. Its opening is a generational event for the Charleston area and beyond.”

Pryor said that as the museum looks to the year ahead, all South Carolina schools can visit the museum at no cost to the student.

“We love the idea of being a museum in Charleston, but we’re not a Charleston museum,” Pryor said. “We’re striving to be a community center, an accessible community resource.”

It’s been a month since Michel’s visit, but Charleston remains on her mind. Donning a rice necklace and bracelet she bought while in town, she said in a phone call in August that she returned home with a whole new understanding of her family’s own immigrant story and Charleston’s involvement with the slave trade.

“I never knew Charleston was such a large part of that story,” she said. “For such a dark time in our history, the museum really shines a light on it in an impactful way.”