The Long-Awaited Opening of a New Museum Coincides with Juneteenth

Two decades in the making, the International African American Museum and gathering space in Charleston, South Carolina, will trace the untold stories of enslaved Africans brought to the U.S.

Author: Jennifer N. Dienst       

lighted exterior of museum at night

The International African American Museum (IAAM) features nine galleries housing 11 core exhibits and one changing exhibit that rotates two to three times annually. (Courtesy IAAM)

Today, June 19, the U.S. is celebrating Juneteenth, which was named a federal holiday in 2021. Convene wrote last year about how the day that commemorates the emancipation of slavery is celebrated in Fort Worth. On June 27, in Charleston, South Carolina, a museum more than 20 years in the making — the International African American Museum — will open along the wharf in what was once one of the most prolific slave-trading ports in the U.S., timed to coincide with Juneteenth.

Transatlantic crossings sign in gallery with 3 large video screens

The Transatlantic Experience gallery at the IAAM features eight large video screens showing a film that takes visitors on a historical journey through hundreds of years of history. (Courtesy IAAM)

It’s an example of how destinations are reckoning with their dark past, rather than covering it up. “Sometimes history requires a little courage,” the International African American Museum’s president and CEO, Tonya Matthews, Ph.D., told The New York Times last year. “I am proud to be starting to see … more of a weaving of the conversation about not just slavery, but African American history more broadly, throughout our city, throughout our region.”

The opening is a significant one for the destination, which critics say has not always fully represented its history in its tourism narrative. In addition to art, artifacts, and exhibits that illustrate the African journey to the New World, the $100-million museum honors the history of its location with its design and spaces. For example, the museum’s African Ancestors Memorial Garden, open to the public, includes variegated plants significant to that journey, like the sweetgrasses enslaved Africans used to make Sweetgrass baskets, a long-held Lowcountry tradition. The garden is one of several available for private event rental, along with the museum’s indoor spaces.

Jennifer N. Dienst is senior editor at Convene.

winding wooden walkway amidst large garden

The African Ancestors Memorial Garden sprawls across the IAAM grounds and gives visitors the opportunity to honor African ancestors (Courtesy IAAM)

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