The late Boston architect Henry Cobb conceived of the museum’s design. Windows in the long, narrow plain building are adorned inside and out with faux shutters and trim made from brown Ipe, a durable and dense Central and South American wood. | Photo by Ruta Smith

After delays, the International African American Museum is set to open early 2023

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A place for learning

 Nine core galleries, a special exhibit space and a genealogy center in the International African American Museum (IAAM) are taking shape to present a sweeping story of the Africans’ forced migration to America.

The IAAM’s galleries will reveal the realities of the slave trade and plantation life while presenting the skills and culture of people of African descent and their contributions to this country. 

The public will have to wait, however, until Jan. 21, 2023, to tour the museum being built on the site of Gadsden’s Wharf, a 19th century slave-trading port on the Cooper River. The museum was expected to be completed by March 2022, but then the opening was pushed back to this summer and delayed again.

Delays and changes have increased the museum’s cost from $75 million to nearly $100 million, said City of Charleston spokesman Jack O’Toole. The city owns the building, and will lease it annually to the IAAM for $1.

Charleston City Council on Tuesday was expected to approve the latest in a series of construction changes that will raise the museum’s cost by an additional $338,000. The museum’s overall cost increased due to pandemic-related delays and changes in materials. Although council votes on the changes, the IAAM pays for them. The city pledged $12.5 million in accommodation taxes to pay for the museum’s design, engineering and architectural oversight. After the museum opens, O’Toole said, the city will maintain the museum’s African Ancestors Memorial Garden, an ethnobotanical garden with indigenous plants from West Africa, the Caribbean and the Lowcountry. Sweetgrass is the garden’s most recognizable local plant.

Dr. Tonya M. Matthews, the museum’s president and chief executive officer, said during the museum’s planning, the city negotiated a construction budget through “a guaranteed maximum price process. … The project did bear [the] impact of unexpected pandemic-induced costs like most construction projects.” The museum’s current operating cost also has been affected by the pandemic, she said. “We managed our budgets and expenditures carefully, and we continue to do so,” she said. After the opening, the operating budget is expected to range between $8 million to $10 million annually, Matthews said.

The museum has received more than $100 million from state and local governments, companies, nonprofits and individuals. Last week, aerospace manufacturer The Boeing Company gave the museum its second $1 million donation. The money will provide free admission for underserved children.

In a 2000 state-of-the-city address, then-mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. announced his desire to build the museum. The following year, a site across from the South Carolina Aquarium was selected. But three years later, plans changed, and the city paid $3.5 million for the Gadsden’s Wharf site.

“Trauma and joy”

When the IAAM opens, its story starts outside at two yet-to-be-finished black granite walls memorializing the more than 700 Africans who froze to death in 1806 at the wharf. The memorial walls fit within the concrete outline on the ground of the storage house where the enslaved people perished during an unexpected freeze. To represent them, a series of human figures will appear as if they are emerging from the ground. The black polished walls will bear a quote from the late Maya Angelou: “And still I rise.”

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