Charleston Is Getting a New Museum Spotlighting African American History — and We Got a First Look Inside

The long-awaited International African American Museum is set to open in Charleston in January 2023.

Interior exhibit space renderings of International African American Museum
Photo: Ellis Creek Photography

One of the first things you notice as you enter Charleston's new International African American Museum (IAAM), is the "Wall of Departure": a list of names and ages, recorded from the captured and corralled before they were forced onto slave ships and across the Atlantic in chains. A few steps on, the "Wall of Arrival" tells a very different story: Americanized nicknames branded onto those lucky enough to survive the horrific crossing — "Big Sam," "Friday," "Bella." Their identities, along with their freedom, now half a world away.

After 20 years of planning and more than $100 million in investment, the IAAM — one of the most anticipated museums in U.S. history — will open its doors to the public in January 2023. And Travel + Leisure was invited in for an exclusive first look.

Interior exhibit space renderings of International African American Museum
Ellis Creek Photography

Charleston, one of the nation's most notorious slave ports, was already a bold choice for such a significant undertaking, but its exact site doubles down on that. The sleek building rises above Gadsden's Wharf — the specific dock where more than 45% of all African slaves entered America. This, as the museum's CEO is keen to point out, is part of the city's bigger mission to tackle its past honestly and unflinchingly.

"Committed reckoning with history is a necessary stop on the road to healing and reconciliation," says Dr. Tonya Matthews, the museum's president. "Charleston is a port city, a global city, a historic city — and there's no better place for our museum to steward these stories that have such national and international significance and impact."

The museum itself is a triumph: nine core galleries and special exhibition spaces over one enormous, sun-drenched floor, delving into everything from the origins of slavery to the continued fight for equality today. Along the way, interactive installations help visitors navigate topics like Reconstruction, the Great Migration, and the civil rights movement, thanks to state-of-the-art digital displays gifted by partners like Samsung and Google. (One of the most impactful is the "Memories of the Enslaved" exhibit — a room flooded with audible first-person accounts of slavery, recorded in the 1930s.)

Interior exhibit space renderings of International African American Museum
Ellis Creek Photography

"I like to describe the museum as a space of courageous curiosity," says Dr. Matthews. "There's so much history here, so many untold stories. That's what we're trying to delve into — to better understand not just where so many of us came from, but also where we're all going. Slavery is in the middle of the African American journey; it's not the beginning, and it's certainly not the end."

To honor those African beginnings, the IAAM will also showcase artifacts from West African countries, including Senegal and Sierra Leone, to "push back against the door of no return" and illuminate the real lives of those torn from their families and cultures by the slave trade (a powerful example is the cluster of African-style "stay-lay" memorial stones guarding the museum's entrance).

Framing the exhibits are deft design touches, courtesy of visionary architect Henry Cobb (who sadly passed away in 2020, before seeing his final masterpiece finished). Stone oceanfront windows, for example, slant toward Africa, while the museum itself appears to float above the former slave dock on 13-foot pillars, honoring the hallowed ground beneath them.

"It's incredible that we've been able to build this museum on the very wharf where so many people's ancestors came through and survived," says assistant curator Martina Morale. "Charleston is one of those great tourist places — with grand buildings, historic streets, and pretty beaches — but most of the time people don't realize that much of what they're looking at was built by enslaved hands. Asking the right questions is the key to opening those eyes, and that's what we're trying to do here."

Interior exhibit space renderings of International African American Museum
Ellis Creek Photography

The room where most of those questions will be asked is the final stop on our museum tour: the Center for Family History. Here, a team of dedicated genealogists will help visitors trace their own family histories, under watchful portraits of powerful African Americans like Michelle Obama — a key supporter of the IAAM who can trace her own origins back to the shackles of Gadsden's Wharf.

"When you start digging into your genealogy, you never know what you're going to unearth; I have some ancestors who were enslaved, and others who held people in bondage," says Morale. "The deeper you dig, the deeper the connections you discover, linking all of us together.

"That's what we're hoping to do here: inspire people to keep researching and uncovering their ancestors' untold stories. Gadsden's Wharf isn't an endpoint anymore; now, it's a starting point."

For updates on the museum, see the official website.

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