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Charleston Museum Honors a Journey of Grief and Grace

In Charleston Harbor, where the initiating shots of the Civil War were fired — Fort Sumter is distantly visible — I’m on the site of a former shipping pier known as Gadsden’s Wharf. Here, in the 18th and early 19th century, ships carrying tens of thousands of enslaved Black Americans deposited their human cargo, a population that would, through unthinkable adversity and creative perseverance, utterly transform what “America” meant, and means.

On this spot now, looking a bit like a ship itself, stands the eagerly awaited and long-delayed new International African American Museum. After an almost quarter-century journey hampered by political squalls, economic doldrums, sometimes mutinous crews, and last-minute fogs, this cultural vessel has securely, and handsomely, come to berth here, opening to the public on Tuesday.

The new museum is very much what this place is about: the original forced infusion of Black cultural energy into America, and the consequences of that for the present. It’s the first major new museum of African American history in the country to bring the whole Afro-Atlantic world, including Africa itself, fully into the picture.

The museum’s architecture, designed by Henry N. Cobb (1926-2020), is responsive to the institution’s complex global-local agenda. A long horizontal block of sand-beige brick raised high on stout pilings, it conjures the image of a boat in dry dock. But it also suggests a kind of Afro-futurist spacecraft, hovering, set for liftoff.

Beneath and around it is a public park that the museum has named the African Ancestors Memorial Garden. It’s clearly conceived as a tribute to victims of the torturous Atlantic Ocean crossing known as the Middle Passage, and specifically to those who arrived, dead or alive, at this very spot. Ghostly images — life-size silhouettes of bodies packed together, shoulder to shoulder, as if in a ship’s hold — appear to be carved into the garden’s pavement. Yet surrounding, and softening, this sepulchral frieze are signs of new life and growth in the form of plantings, designed by the landscape artist Walter J. Hood, of lush vegetation: palm trees native to Africa, sweet grass native to South Carolina.

So even from the outside, this history museum set in a former slave port announces itself as being about something more than slavery. It’s a monument to survival and continuance. It situates Gadsden’s Wharf, and Charleston, on a wide map still being explored and expanded.

Just inside the museum, a version of that map unfolds in the form of a kind of allée of cantilevered video screens flashing images of Afro-Atlantic cultures past and present: the Great Mosque at Djenné in Mali; the “door of no return” in Ghana, and contemporary street festivals in Bahia, Port-au-Prince, and Brooklyn. Accompanied by an oceanic World Music-style soundscape, the videos offer a Sensurround soak in the vitality and variety of diaspora as the museum envisions it.

And that view, as set out in a series of nine galleries, is alternately grand and granular. Two large wide-open spaces, labeled “African Worlds” and “South Carolina Connections,” are geared to ambitiously scaled, loosely-themed multimedia displays, including a terrific globe-leaping video animation called “Traveling Through Time” by the New York-and-D. C.-based artist Nate Lewis, and a historically programmed touch-table map of the museum’s home state.

Several smaller galleries, densely installed with objects and texts — the lucid exhibition design is by Ralph Appelbaum — tend to be topic-specific, and a handful of cabinet-size pocket displays are even more tightly focused.

One, called “American Journeys,” is a chronological sequence of these mini-installations tracing the Black story as it took place primarily in South Carolina, from plantation slavery through the Civil War and the civil rights era. There are no big surprises, but a familiar national narrative is refreshed and enlivened by being filtered through a regional lens.

Rarely encountered is the kind of data found in a gallery called “African Roots,” where facing displays connect certain African art forms and spiritual practices with related ones in Latin America: Candomblé in Brazil, Santeria in Cuba and Puerto Rico. And it is worth visiting the museum just to find a gallery devoted to the West-African-sourced Gullah Geechee culture of the Carolina, Georgia and Florida Atlantic coast, evoked here in a full-scale chapel-like “praise house” and in a short, poetic film commissioned by the museum from the Ummah Chroma collective and directed by Julie Dash.

Indeed, the sheer volume of new or unfamiliar information delivered by the museum’s displays is exhilarating. At the same time, the brutal, racist realities that fueled the Afro-Atlantic dispersal is never far from view.

In “South Carolina Connections” Charleston’s catalytic role in the slave trade is made plain. (Five years ago, the city issued a formal apology for the part it played in this shameful enterprise.) In a gallery titled “Carolina Gold,” we learn how rice cultivation, the state’s first boom industry, the one that created a rich white plantation-aristocracy, arrived here with enslaved West Africans and flourished through their backbreaking labor.

Historical timelines deliver chilling reports from the past. Some news is good: A list of international revolutionary movements in which African-descendant people participated during the 18th and 19th century is long. But a list of episodes of anti-Black violence in the early 20th century in the United States is even longer.

Charleston is on that list more than once, and would be again in an update: The museum’s opening comes just 10 days after the anniversary of the 2015 fatal shooting by a white supremacist of nine Black members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, known as Mother Emanuel, one of the oldest AME church in the South. You can see its steeple from the museum.

Evident throughout the museum is an effort to balance negative and positive historical perspectives, to form an identity around the very idea of balance in an unstable nation and world. The decision to go this route can’t have been easy. Given the building’s siting, it would have seemed natural to create a more polemical institution, a museum about slavery, like the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration in Montgomery, Ala. Debate over this — adamant, often rancorous — was surely an early contributing factor in the project’s long-delayed, 23-year realization.

(Other roadblocks included financial foot-dragging on the part of both city and state governments and standoffishness on the part of some private donors. There were departures, friendly or otherwise, of board members and museum staff. And finally, last year, close to the finish line, the failure of the building’s climate system, creating a serious humidity problem — at least one person reports seeing mist in the galleries. Potentially damaging to art and artifacts, it required a six-month delay in the opening, scheduled for last January.)

A model the museum shouldn’t pursue is one set by a temporary traveling show organized by the Smithsonian Institution, on view in its special exhibition gallery through Aug. 6. Boomingly titled “Men of Change: Power. Triumph. Truth,” it’s a shoutout to two dozen Black male celebrities from politics, sports and the arts. It’s a pumped-up hall-of-fame affair of a kind that’s been done, and done, and doesn’t need doing anymore.

The Charleston museum, I’m happy to see, is already on the job. Almost all of its inaugural displays, as well as the garden below, incorporate contemporary art. Much of the work is from a still-young permanent collection that the museum seems interested in expanding (and that should certainly include Charleston-based artists). If anything will keep its institutional thinking critical and flexible, that will.

History museums are hard to build and can be hard to love. (The Charleston museum’s notion of balance will not please everyone.) But if such a museum expands the parameters of history, and this one does, that’s a lot. Which, I guess, is why I ended up on a visit awarding it my sincerest accolade: At closing time I didn’t want to leave.

International African American Museum

Opens June 27, 14 Wharfside Street, Charleston, S.C., (843) 872-5352; iaamuseum.org

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