Sacred Ground: Charleston’s International African American Museum’s big plans

Since the idea for the International African American Museum was publicly announced almost two decades ago, the project has swung on a pendulum of uncertainty. Until now.

The museum nearly has the money it needs to break ground. It’s made much progress toward finalizing the exhibitions and floor plan. And it’s tapping into a rich and powerful history with broad appeal.

But will it succeed?

Museums of black history have been known to struggle financially and find themselves caught in a niche that doesn’t always achieve broad appeal. The Charleston museum project has garnered significant support, but it also has raised concerns about how it will present history and, in particular, how it will describe the role Charleston has played in the African-American experience.

Some observers also have wondered how the IAAM will differ from other such museums, whether it will embrace the history of great African civilizations before the start of the transatlantic slave trade, how it will engage the local community and what measures will be adopted to ensure long-term viability.

Museum officials are enthusiastic about the opportunities they face and upbeat about the value of the International African American Museum. They say it’s likely to draw many patrons and garner significant philanthropic support as it develops programming that is at once truly international and unique to Charleston.

“We want to create a space where people can feel safe to dive into different issues, and hopefully become better as a result,” said museum director Michael Boulware Moore.

Some local concerns

Millicent Brown, a retired history professor who helped integrate Charleston’s public schools and who remains a proponent of economic and education reform, attended early meetings, starting around 2003, and quickly became concerned that local resources — historians with a Ph.D. like hers and other “indigenous, knowledgeable African Americans” — were not being embraced.

Fifteen years later, that concern persists, she said. And she continues to wonder how the museum will be different from the Old Slave Mart Museum on Chalmers Street, or the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., or local historic sites, all of which already provided a wealth of information about the African-American experience.

“The biggest problem is limiting the story,” Brown said. “In the wake of Emanuel (the 2015 church shooting), Charlottesville, Black Lives Matter and police brutality, we are able now to admit that the problem of America is white supremacy.” Will the museum address this problem?

Museum director Moore noted that the African-American experience has included significant resistance at every stage. The museum’s Social Justice Action Lab is where patrons can pursue current forms of resistance, whether it’s protecting heirs property, expanding voting rights or addressing police violence, he said.

“Most museums are driving and looking into the rearview mirror,” he said. But this will be an evergreen space “to bring things to the present, and into the future.”

Brown wants the museum’s historical narrative to begin not with the transatlantic slave trade, but with 12th- or 13th-century Africa, when the continent’s great civilizations were flourishing.

“How do you truly appreciate the lack of humanity of slavery if you don’t have a conception of the humanity of free Africans?” she said. To begin with victimhood is to start off on the wrong foot, Brown said. “That’s why we want more about African origins and culture, portraying empowered blacks and, in so doing, challenging the notion of white supremacy,” she said. “If you start with victimhood, how are you going to make black children feel good about themselves? How are you going to get white children to see blacks as not inferior?”

It’s not enough anymore for a museum merely to tell a story, she added.

“Museums tell the victim’s story well,” Brown said. “They must be challenged to offer solutions to oppression.”

Moore said Africa features prominently in the museum exhibits.

“The most prominent gallery we have is about Africa,” he said. And a changing exhibit space can be used to showcase aspects of African history and culture. “The whole point is to try to present the humanity of the people who came here.”

Perhaps the strongest local advocate of adopting a historical narrative that delves into the glories of early African civilization is Robert “King David” Ross, a local storyteller and interpreter of ancient African history. Ross said it’s important to present visitors with affirmative interpretations of African achievements and not just those that conjure servitude and bondage.

Ross objects to the museum’s effort to secure two stones from Bunce Island, Sierra Leone, on which captured Africans perhaps took their last steps before leaving the continent.

Moore said these stones would help forge the connection between the museum and West Africa, providing visitors a powerful opportunity to lay their hands on something their ancestors once touched. And since the building will sit at Gadsden’s Wharf, a major point of entry for slaves arriving in North America, the stones would represent a geographic as well as a spiritual and historic link.

For Ross, though, they only would heighten the sense of trauma and anger over slavery and white supremacy. Better than “rocks of subjugation and oppression” would be a replica of the ancient Ishango Bone, which was a sub-Saharan mathematical tool developed about 25,000 years ago and which symbolizes the intelligence and capabilities of ancient African peoples.

Ajani Ofunniyin, a College of Charleston adjunct professor who holds a Ph.D. in anthropology and took courses in museum studies, said he teeters between optimism and skepticism. He appreciates his interactions with Moore but wishes museum planners would invite more West African scholars to the table.

His feelings about former Mayor Joe Riley’s leadership are similarly mixed. Riley is well-intended to be sure, and a successful fundraiser, but he can be autocratic in his management of the project, he said.

“Riley is the guy who gentrified the city,” Ofunniyin said. “Is this the payoff?”

International focus

Bernard Powers, a history professor at the College of Charleston and head of the museum’s program committee, noted that the history of black people is long, and that the museum — any museum — can only tell a part of it. “So the challenge is picking and choosing what to tell,” he said.

IAAM’s historical narrative will not begin with slavery.

“An initial gallery will be devoted to the African background but will tie into the African-American experience,” Powers said. The gallery’s purpose will be to examine aspects of African culture that were manifested in populations forcibly transferred to North America.

The museum is not going to be about the great kings and queens of Africa, he said. Rather, it will focus on the use and abuse of power in Charleston, the significance of its location, Gadsden’s Wharf and the accomplishments and contributions of African-Americans.

“Charleston is the jumping off point,” Powers said. “The thrust is to take what happened here and use this as a springboard to talk of the experiences of African people internationally.”

So the museum will explore how cultural practices of enslaved Africans in America morphed into something new, how some of those who landed in Charleston and their descendants then moved on to the Caribbean, Nova Scotia and other parts of the Western Hemisphere, and even back to Africa.

“A big part of the international emphasis is how black people migrated from the Charleston area and seeded African-American culture throughout North America and beyond,” Powers said. “This is not a slavery museum. … We want to be able to reinterpret American history.”

Artist and board member Jonathan Green has long maintained an interest in the historical significance of the Lowcountry rice economy and has pushed to ensure the museum make that a focus of its exhibition. In so doing, he has helped the museum achieve its “international” aspirations.

“My interest was helping to find a way, from the perspective of an artist and history buff, to begin to find a sequence of events that led to where we are right now,” Green said. “You can look at rice culture from the perspective of the people who made the money or from the perspective of those who did the work, and that leads back to Africa.”

Rice, he said, is international by definition: the knowledge and engineering required for cultivating it came from Africa, the product was shipped around the world and the wealth it created benefited white planters and traders up and down the East Coast.

“Charleston always has been an international city, largely because of the culture of rice,” Green said. And global trade in enslaved Africans transplanted millions who brought their cultures with them to the New World. That human experience, among other things, must be conveyed by the museum, he said. “It’s not about the grandeur of the building, it’s about a sacred space.”

‘Hub and spoke model’

Powers expanded on Green’s comments, pointing out how difficult it can be to describe the transatlantic slave trade.

“You can’t just focus on the horrors, you’ve got to dig deeper, explore, link oneself to specific groups of people, help repair oneself,” Powers said.

The program committee has considered ideas presented by an extended group of academics and community advisers to determine exhibition content, Powers said. Museum professionals and academics from England, Brazil, Sierra Leone, Barbados and the U.S. also have offered input.

Early on, several people, including local activist James Campbell, insisted that the museum have an international focus, Powers said. “We gravitated toward that. … If this were about just Charleston, it would have less appeal. … The fact that we’re casting it in this larger framework makes it possible for people around the world to lay claim to what we’re doing.”

Powers and Moore said that the museum will not duplicate the work of other local and regional institutions, such as the historic plantations, Old Slave Mart Museum, Avery Research CenterPenn Center and Georgetown Rice Museum. Rather, it will encourage patrons to visit these sites.

“The idea of being a hub and spoke model, where the hub is a downtown Charleston interpretive research, a gathering center that sends people out into the community, would be the model I think would be very successful,” said Tracey Todd, chief operating officer of Middleton Place, a historic plantation along the Ashley River.

Melanie Ide, a project director at the exhibit design firm Ralph Appelbaum Associates, said that the exhibit space is purposefully designed to make its own implicit connection between Africa and America, the past and future. At one end is the Atlantic Connections gallery, which looks out onto the harbor; at the other is the Family History Center, which looks out onto the city.

”These two anchor spaces create a circularity,” she said. Visitors can look back and forward in time, connecting past and future. The museum will facilitate such connections and serve as a “trailhead,” a place to begin one’s own custom heritage tour, Ide said.

Civic engagement

The museum project should be a force for achieving, or at least striving for, economic parity, argued Clay Middleton, director of business services for the city of Charleston. Its contractors should include minority-run businesses. “Anything other than that does not do justice,” he said.

Moore noted that one of the architectural firms responsible for designing the building, Moody Nolan, is black-owned. So is the landscape architecture firm Hood Design Studio. Construction contracts are secured and managed by city officials but will include arrangements with minority-owned businesses using the city’s diversity goals as a baseline, Moore said.

What’s more, the museum will seek ways to address economic disparities and participate in economic development initiatives, he said.

“We can’t ignore the local dynamic,” Moore said. “For an institution to tell the truth and claim to represent the African-American community, it’s got to engage in economic development.”

To that end, Moore hopes that the museum eventually will be able to award prizes and grants, work on current social and economic justice issues and maintain an open dialogue about issues such as gentrification.

Riley said the public presentation of African-American history is relatively new and in flux.

“We will be peeling away layers, discovering more and more,” he said.

In some ways, the museum’s initiatives will contribute to this history in real time. Its Family History Center will help visitors research their genetic heritage and discover connections they would not otherwise have made. And the rotating shows will present up-to-date research on a variety of topics.

Moore, who will eventually work from offices in a mezzanine atop the museum building, said the project is meant in part as a historical corrective that empowers African Americans with the ability to tell their own story.

“America is a social experiment, a tapestry of different cultures,” he said. “If you buy into that, this is a critical piece of the story that needs to be told. … But we want to tell the truth in a way that ultimately is uplifting, for all Americans.”

Source: Adam Parker at Post & Courier