African American Museum delays opening

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African American Museum delays opening
The focus spans centuries and continents, from the global impact of slavery and the diaspora to contemporary conversations about race and social justice.

by Zachary Small

NEW YORK, NY.- The International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, has building issues that will delay the eagerly awaited center’s opening until later in 2023, museum leaders said.

Last week, the leaders said the January opening was postponed because of faulty humidity and temperature controls required to protect its exhibits and artifacts, which tell the stories of the passage of thousands of enslaved Africans to the United States. The International African American Museum is at the former Gadsden Wharf, once a large port where nearly half of all enslaved Africans arrived; remnants of the wooden wharf were found by archaeologists in 2014 during an exploratory dig for the museum site.

“We regret this turn of events and any inconvenience to our loyal members,” Tonya M. Matthews, the museum’s president and CEO, said in a Dec. 16 letter to donors. “We foreground the responsibility to ensure the highest standard of safety and preservation for our most sensitive objects, art and artifacts that honor the journey of our ancestors and tell the critical stories of our nation’s history.”

Officials had planned the museum’s opening for the weekend of Jan. 21, after Martin Luther King’s Birthday; however, they now expect the inauguration ceremony to occur sometime within the first six months of next year.

The delay was the latest in a series of postponements that have bedeviled the museum since the $120 million project was first proposed more than 20 years ago. Architect Henry N. Cobb worked with landscape designer Walter Hood and exhibitions designer Ralph Applebaum to fill the 100,000-square-foot space with nine galleries; a genealogy center for visitors researching their own ancestries; and a memorial garden with a tidal pool.

Matthews arrived at the museum last year amid a period of churn, which a former museum executive described in a memo to trustees, obtained by The Post and Courier, as a result of a “toxic” and “siloed” work environment. However, the center has continued to grow to meet demands of the project and now has more than 30 employees.

There had been recent signs of trouble with finishing the museum. In April, leaders asked the city of Charleston for an extra few million dollars to account for unforeseen challenges in finishing the center. Officials blamed supply chain issues and other construction costs like roof repairs, design changes and extra insurance.

“We broke ground in the fall of 2019, and then we hit the very trying period of COVID-19,” Matthews said in an interview Wednesday. “We were a bit hampered, but we did continue to plow through.”

During an interview with a local news channel Monday, the museum’s chair, Wilbur Johnson, said the board knew of the climate issues inside the building for a while and had been working to solve them. They were “not yet fully resolved” and he added that he considered the institution’s role in telling history to be “a sacred obligation.”

Matthews said museum officials are using the delay to refine a special exhibition, which has not been announced. The museum is also waiting for some artworks to complete its program, which has a permanent collection of nearly 300 works of art and historical artifacts telling the story of African Americans. This includes pottery by the enslaved artist David Drake, images from the Malian photographer Seydou Keita and an original copy of “Things Fall Apart,” the 1958 novel by Chinua Achebe. Visitors will also encounter “Seeking,” a short video by filmmaker Julie Dash that uses the coming-of-age traditions of the Gullah Geechee, descendants of West Africans brought to the American Southeastern coast, to describe a narrative of resilience.

“I was as excited about this opening as everyone else,” Matthews said. “I am an overachiever and I am ambitious. I honor and respect things like deadlines, but this is a huge responsibility and we will do what we need to make sure that we present this museum and the stories we tell in an extraordinary light.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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