How To Make The Most Of Your Visit To The International African American Museum

International African American Museum. Image via Travel+Leisure


- The long awaited International African American Museum opens Tuesday, and people are excited to see it.

With so much information and exhibits to consume at the IAAM, a staff member offers a suggestion on how to navigate the experience.

Martina Morale is Director of Curatorial and Special Exhibits of the International African American Museum.

“So here we stand in front of our grand staircase that is kind of our gathering spot, before you enter the museum, before you enter the garden. It’s a place you can have a seat, there’s also a place for programming and other events,” Morale said.

The gathering spot is the massive open space in front of the museum. A covered area, where your family and friends can meet before beginning the tour.

Morale recommends starting your tour at the huge granite wall just off to right of the gathering spot that contains an inscription of a Maya Angelou quote. The brick outline marks the spot where the storehouse at Gadsden’s Wharf used to sit. The building could hold hundreds of African men, women and children, ready to be sold into slavery.

“In fact, one harsh winter, they were holding the captives to drive the price up in the market and unfortunately over 700 captives perished in the harsh conditions, very cold and of course the conditions were generally pretty terrible for African captives,” Morale said.

Human-like sculptures on the ground inside the wall face east toward the water, representing the desire for the ocean to take them back home to the coast of West Africa.

You’ll continue to the back of the property to the tide pool. Markers around the pool show the nations where Africans were captured and the destinations that introduced them to slavery, representing some of the most active ports during the slave trade.

“Which again tells the story of the African captives. It really makes you think about that journey across the Atlantic and how terrible it was for them,” Morale said.

After the tide pool, you can either take the elevator or the stairs to the main lobby. Keep straight to walk through the Transatlantic Experience.

“And this is an eight-screen immersive experience that shows both moving and still images. We start really in the middle passage. Start with that Transatlantic Slave Trade, just imagery, water and then we continue through scenes of the Diaspora,” Morale said.

All presentations in the museum run on a loop, so feel free to stop back through during your visit.

The Transatlantic Slave Trade exhibit leads to the South Carolina Connections Gallery.

“This gallery is about African American people important to the history of South Carolina and of course the nation and the world,” Morale said.

You’ll see the faces of men and women, from all walks of life, who broke barriers and made significant impacts not just to the black race, but the human race.

The area features a digital table with touch screen technology, something children will enjoy exploring because of the interactive capability.

Next, you’re encouraged to take a left, to the West and West Central African room, where the story of Africans brought to America begins. The African roots and Routes gallery is filled with artifacts and pieces and two films.

Two of the most powerful places in the museum are small, dark spaces simply filled with names.

As you enter the Passages Space entitled Generations of Captivity, the walls bear the original African names and ages of people who boarded slave ships: Cunnah 8, Seesah 6, Tinwarrole 9 and Hosoana 28.

Then on the other side of the museum, the second wall shows how the names of the African captives were changed to reflect contemporary names of that time: Dianna, Patty, Moses, Beck and Carolina.

The museum depicts the harsh beginnings of Africans in America but balances the trauma with triumph.

You will see exquisite artwork and artifacts, including this hand beaded Mardi Gras Indian Suit.

You’ll want to sit inside the replica of a praise house complete with the sounds that helped to lift the spirits of the Gullah Geechee is engaging.

The other half of the museum, back toward the front, begins with the American Journeys Gallery. It is laid out like a textbook, starting with the early Carolinas in the 1400s and continuing through contemporary times.

You may recognize some of the local faces narrating stories about voting rights, gentrification and the struggle of black women in America.

Significant historical facts are sprinkled throughout the building. A replica of a drum, known as a djembe, sits in a glass display.

Enslaved Africans were banned from playing drums like these that originated in their homeland, because of how the instruments were used during a fight for freedom near Charleston in 1739.

“And so, after the Stono Rebellion, it was illegal for enslaved Africans to gather and play music because often times drums and sounds were what called folk to know that it was time to rebel,” Morale said.

Again, balancing injustice with joy, the African American story in Charleston wouldn’t be complete without samples of the extraordinary work of Master Blacksmith Philip Simmons, who was trained by a former slave, and the intricate beauty of sweet grass baskets. The art of basket making is a tradition that dates back centuries to West Africa.

From captivity and enslavement, resistance and rebellion, emancipation to reconstruction, and degradation to celebration, you’ll see the faces, witness the stories, and gain a deeper understanding of Africans in America and beyond. The journey starts heavy, but when you leave the International African American Museum, you will leave be uplifted.

To purchase tickets or learn more about the International African American Museum, click here.