FEATURE ‌ Eyes on the Prize 

Will Charleston's International African-American Museum ever become a reality? Supporters say yes — eventually

click to enlarge Artist Jacob Lindsay suggests the view from the planned museum's third-floor rooftop in this rendering
  • Artist Jacob Lindsay suggests the view from the planned museum's third-floor rooftop in this rendering

Two weeks ago, with the start of Black History Month very much on its mind, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. finally revealed the site for its National Museum of African-American History and Culture: a five-acre, triangle-shaped chunk of prime real estate on the National Mall, right next to the National Museum of American History. The museum, expected to set back donors (and taxpayers) somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 million and encompass 350,000 square feet, has taken nearly a century to arrive at this point (it was first proposed to Congress by supporters in 1916). When it's completed, in a decade or so, it will include collections and exhibits dedicated to slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the civil rights movement and, presumably much more.

Here in Charleston, advocates for our own International African-American Museum were mighty relieved to hear of the Smithsonian announcement. For one thing, it's been a subject of fearful speculation. For another, it's sure to provide a public relations boost to ongoing efforts to create a world-class museum here — and frankly they could use a boost.

Though not quite 100 years in the making, the International African-American Museum has taken its own long and winding road since Mayor Joseph Riley first proposed it in 2001. At the moment, the only thing that's certain about the IAAM is its eventual location: a half-acre lot on the corner of Concord and Calhoun streets, across from Liberty Square and Ansonborough Field, which the City has set aside for the purpose. In recent years, a series of announcements regarding fundraising efforts, the expected hiring of administrative staff, not-for-profit incorporation, and other necessary plans have trickled out from board members and advocates with sporadic irregularity — yet for the most part have remained wholly unrealized.

But that may be about to change. Carolee Williams, a project manager with the City of Charleston, says that some real progress is being made behind the scenes. This includes the development of a strategic plan for the facility, which will be followed by hiring an executive director and establishing 501(c)(3) status. With those elements in place, she says, the board can finally put a price tag on the project and begin fundraising in earnest, calling on the assistance of its many local supporters as well as an international board of advisors that includes Bill Clinton and Marva Smalls, the head of Nickelodeon and Spike TV.

To date, the most significant accomplishment of the board — led by U.S. Sen. Jim Clyburn and WCSC general manager Rita Littles O'Neill — has been to hire New York-based museum planning and design consultant group American History Workshop to work with the museum's strategic planning team, directed by Terrie Rouse, the former director of the Philadelphia African American Museum. The group is tasked with defining the museum's story, evaluating its financial feasibility, and determining the best operating structure. Once that plan has been finalized — Williams suggests an initial draft may be available for a gander as early as this spring — things will kick into high gear. She notes the group will apply for not-for-profit status at that point, and she says an announcement regarding a salaried executive director is imminent.

Then again, all that may change.

"It's a work in progress," says O'Neill, IAAM vice-chair of the strategic plan. "They [the American History Workshop] have been working on quite a few projects; they just completed one called Slavery in New York for the New York Historical Society. The process takes so many steps. We just had the logo approved at our last meeting — that's just one step in starting to bring the paperwork for the museum together, for example. We're taking our time to make sure everything is completed before we take it to the city."

American History Workshop has been involved in designing exhibits for scores of other major interpretive historic projects, including the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Slavery in New York includes public programs, lectures, debates, films, music and theatrical performances, and walking tours of the city that extend the reach of the exhibitions.

"They know how to go back and dig up real facts," says O'Neill. "They know how to tell a story in the right way through its design. They bring a wealth of understanding for us on how the process should go. They talk to people in the community and to the historians; they'll come back and propose some ideas on what should be in there and how it should be presented."

For the moment, initial plans are for the main exhibit spaces of a 60,000-square-foot, three-floor museum to include three core galleries and two or three changing galleries. The core galleries would likely be separated chronologically into three stories: the role of Africans in the first great era of global trade, the role of African-Americans in the struggle against slavery, and the role of black Americans in the struggle for equality and human rights in S.C. and around the globe. The changing galleries would allow the museum to highlight particular aspects of African or African-American culture or historical research and to host exhibits from other museums.

Williams notes that another expected function of the museum will be to serve as a springboard for visitors to other local sites of related interest.

"We're hoping to inspire visitors to feel like they got a foundation here, but then to visit Boone Hall Plantation, for example, for a different, more genuinely historic experience," she says. "We want it to be a museum, but also to have an aspect like a visitors center, which can allow people to connect with places here that are real, with real stories and real history, whether to historic sites or restaurants. We want to inspire people to hear the rest of the story elsewhere. We want to make clear connections to the Lowcountry and to the state."

For the moment, both Williams and O'Neill say, museum backers are focusing almost exclusively on the strategic plan — which will suggest not just the architectural and exhibit design but, to some extent, what size and nature of a facility appears financially sustainable here. Facing an estimated $60 million fundraising effort, and who knows what kind of operating costs once the facility finally opens, they're unwilling to put their faith in an "If you build it, they will come" approach. (Insert pointed nonmention of the S.C. Aquarium here.)

Regardless of what the ultimate design of the building and its exhibits are, says O'Neill, what backers intend the IAAM to offer more than anything else "is hope that a world of peace can exist through understanding this history: slavery, civil rights, the understanding that there's a proud heritage that needs to have a place here. Charleston reaches across the world in telling this story. A lot of who we are as a nation today started here. Looking at the problems that still exist in the world, and still exist here in Charleston, I believe and I hope that there's a message this museum can send out to the world."


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