Charleston, South Carolina, has big plans. The mayor of the city, Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., recently announced new plans for a $75 million International African-American Museum, which has been talked about for the last decade. Now it seems things are moving ahead.
Charleston, where from 1803 to 1807 during the final years of the international slave trade, more than 70,000 enslaved Africans were brought to the city of just 20,000, has backed the museum’s new plans. The plans now envision a 42,000-square foot building. It will be located across from the South Carolina Aquarium and the Fort Sumter Visitors Center.
The IAAM will focus on the story of African-Americans from the time they were brought to America as slaves, through the Civil War, Reconstruction and Jim Crow, the civil rights movement until the present day.
Felicia S. Easterlin, IAAM Program Manager, tells TNJ.com more about the future museum.
TNJ.com: How are the funds being raised? How much has been raised?
Felicia S. Easterlin: The funds will be raised through a combination of governmental funding (city, county, state) and through a combination of corporate, foundational and individual funding. We have just begun capital fundraising efforts and have secured a $12.5 million investment from the city. This commitment was made during a unanimous vote by Charleston’s city council on October 22. We plan to request a matching $12.5 million gift from the County Council in early November, and have every reason to believe we will have the same level of support from the county as well.
TNJ.com: What is the timeline for the project?
F.E.: If things go as planned, we plan to break ground in January 2016, with the museum opening in January 2018.
TNJ.com: Why is this important to open?
F.E.: The IAAM opening is incredibly important because it will fill in the gaps of our city’s incredible history. In order to fully understand our past, our present, and the shaping of our future, we must tell this story. We are being given the privilege to help accurately facilitate a conversation about a part of history that brings with it a great stigma and discomfort. We hope that through telling this story, we can bring not only knowledge, but also peace and reconciliation with the past, and positive steps toward a united future. There’s no better place to tell the story or begin the discussion than in Charleston, near the sacred ground where the journey began.
TNJ.com: What kinds of things will be on exhibit?
F.E.: The IAAM will be a storytelling museum, walking visitors through the timeline of the Africans’ journey from 17th century West Africa, to freedom, specifically focusing on Charleston’s role in that journey. We will do this through interactive permanent exhibits, as well as temporary traveling exhibits. Permanent exhibits and programs will cover the African’s experience and struggle to freedom following the civil war, from Jim Crow to civil rights; and their contributions to the city, state and country from Charleston’s rice culture to present day. What sets the IAAM apart from any other institution of its kind is that the artifacts of its story are embedded within the city in which it will be built, so the IAAM’s role is multi-fold: it’s telling the story inside the museum, and then leading visitors out into the city to explore and discover the other authentic locations where the story took place – the rice fields, the plantations, the sweetgrass basket weavers; the Gullah Geechee Corridor. Because it’s estimated that 80% of African Americans currently living in the United States can trace their ancestry back to at least one enslaved African who entered the U.S. through Charleston’s ports, we will also provide a resource center where visitors can research their ancestry and be able to learn and share their own stories.
TNJ.com: Many museums are facing financial difficulties. How do you plan to keep this new museum viable?
F.E.: That’s a very good question. Museums today are definitely challenged in several ways, specifically, financially and socially. We must build institutions that are financially sustainable and responsible; and that are relevant to their community. Financially, the solution is to create and operate from a sound business plan. We must spend responsibly and have a diverse stream of income; and of course building and maintaining a sufficient endowment is key. The most important key to sustainability, though, is the community. We must make the experience accessible to the community, and make sure the content appeals to a broad audience. It has to be something in which everyone can find something they relate to and want to learn about…which means making the community a part of our programming and content development. I think the struggles of other cultural institutions has taught us the best thing we can do to build a sustainable institution is to not operate within our community, but to function and exist as a member of the community. The IAAM is everyone’s museum. It’s everyone’s story.