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AIA: Charleston’s International African American Museum Tells A Story of Tragedy and Triumph

February 27, 2024
AIA: Charleston’s International African American Museum Tells A Story of Tragedy and Triumph image
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“The International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, wasn’t originally supposed to be located at Gadsden’s Wharf, one of the most significant sites of the American slave trade. The museum was originally slated for a nearby plot of land that didn’t directly edge the waterfront. However, when a development deal for the previously sold land fell through, the city was able to buy the Gadsden’s Wharf site back and set a plan in motion to preserve its significance.

Historians believe that because so many Africans were brought to the U.S. via the pier at Gadsden’s Wharf – an estimated 100,000 at the height of the transatlantic slave trade – 90 percent of African Americans today can trace at least one ancestor to Charleston.

For architects involved in the design of IAAM, which opened in July of 2023 after a long and drawn-out development and construction process that spanned over 20 years, incorporating and interpreting the site choice of Gadsden’s Wharf without downplaying the horrors that occurred there was one of the most important aspects of their job.

The one-story museum sits 13 feet above the wharf, supported by 18 cylindrical columns. The space underneath shelters an outdoor memorial garden, designed by Walter J. Hood’s Hood Design Studio, that honors the wharf’s complex history through winding walkways and greenery provided by both African and native plants. Adjoining the garden is a reflecting pool, which, as Cook explains, serves as a stark reminder of the inhumane and often deadly transatlantic crossings endured by enslaved Africans. The ghostly silhouetted human figures interspersed throughout the pool’s bottom represent the lost souls of the Middle Passage.”

Original article published by The American Institute of Architects