International African American Museum: An Update

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In March 2021, SEGD posted an article about the International African American Museum (IAAM) currently under construction in Charleston, South Carolina. SEGD recently spoke with the museum’s exhibition designers at Ralph Appelbaum Associates (RAA) to learn what types of experiences they are creating for the project. Here’s an update on the project and a glimpse of what to expect.

Today, it is difficult for us to imagine what a harrowing and traumatic experience the Transatlantic Slave Trade was for the millions of people who were kidnapped from their homelands, imprisoned within the hulls of ships, and sent across the ocean to be enslaved in a foreign land.

But it happened.

And the port of Charleston, South Carolina, received more enslaved people from Africa than any other North American city.  

The International African American Museum (IAAM), located on Gadsden’s Wharf facing Charleston Harbor, will present this history and explore the cultures of the African captives and the achievements of their descendants in the Americas, with a special focus on South Carolina. The museum’s stated mission: “To honor the untold stories of the African American journey at one of our country’s most sacred sites.”

And the exhibition designers at SEGD-member firm Ralph Appelbaum Associates (RAA) will help bring those stories to life by connecting the museum’s visitors to dynamic exhibits featuring historic figures, events, and experiences from enslavement and emancipation, through the 20th-century Civil Rights movement, and into the present.

“This is a site of memory and a site of conscience, which we wanted to be reflected in the design, but also in how we developed the interpretation,” says Aki Carpenter, Principal, Director  of Social Projects at RAA.

The theme of “connection” runs throughout the museum, both in design and interpretation. It is expressed by historical connections, linking past and present, and geographic connections linking local, national, and international places, people, and experiences which all played significant roles in the African American journey.

To that end, three main sections make up the museum: the Center for Family History, the American Journeys anchor gallery, and the Changing Exhibitions area. The IAAM will be unique in offering  the Center for Family History as a core experience, connecting visitors to genealogical research resources and sharing stories of individual African American family histories shaped by major historic events and movements.

“The IAAM really wants visitors to engage in the power of family histories,” says Megan Kerman, Design Manager of Social Projects at RAA. “So having a genealogy component, connecting people to events in the past and present, is an important visitor goal.”

A large-scale immersive timeline, titled “American Journeys,” will lead visitors to the Changing Exhibitions area and adjacent Center for Family History. Visitors can walk through this linear gallery rich with artifacts, stories, media, experiential elements, interactive components, and reflective moments.

“Slavery is an important part of the story to help visitors understand the history of South Carolina, but American Journeys takes visitors through the earliest days of the international slave trade to the Carolina colony,  to emancipation and Reconstruction,” says Mary Battle, Senior Content Developer at RAA. “The timeline then moves into the 20th century Civil Rights movement and other interconnected freedom struggles, and up to  the present. Visitors can see a whole arc of interconnected local, national, and international  histories across centuries.” 

“It’s such a rich amount of information. What we faced, as designers, is the challenge of putting too much information in front of visitors; it can be simply overwhelming,” says Luka Kito, Project Director and Lead Designer on the project. “We designed a layered experience; multiple layers of information can cater to multiple visitors; one may be a “studier” while one might be a “streaker.” But by walking through, you can get a big part of the story.”

Woven throughout this 286-foot-long timeline experience are artifacts, media and digital components. American Journeys creates the perimeter of the Changing Exhibitions gallery. Along the way, there are spaces for visitors to gather in small groups.

“While we were designing the exhibits, it was really important that we allowed for space for people to gather within the museum as well as on the exterior in the Memorial Garden,” says  Rio Valledor, Project Manager at RAA. “At both ends of the building, we created two galleries, Atlantic Worlds and the Center for Family History, with open centers to be flexible. We think this messaging is very important to allow and encourage people to assemble inside the museum.”

In addition to the exhibit experiences inside the building, the IAAM will also include a memorial garden and virtual programming.

“The visitor experience is buttressed by the African Ancestors Memorial Garden, designed by MacArthur Genius Award recipient Walter Hood,” says former Chief Operating Officer Dr. Elijah Heyward. “We are excited to also activate the visitor experience through online accessibility and programming that will inspire and interpret the profound narratives we present.”

As new information is released–including an official opening date–you can follow progress on the IAAM here at SEGD. Also, check out the International African American Museum’s website at