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The Head of Charleston’s New African American Museum on Curiosity, Courage and Storytelling

There’s a short stretch along the Charleston waterfront, just a few hundred yards from the South Carolina Aquarium, where tens of thousands of enslaved people took their first steps in the New World.

The site, Gadsden’s Wharf, was among the most prolific international slave trading ports in the United States. But until recently, the site bore no mention of its slave-trading past. It was only during the development of the International African American Museum — a landmark $100 million project that has been in the works for more than 20 years — that researchers brought to light the full history of Gadsden’s Wharf.

“We were part of how Gadsden’s Wharf was coming into community recognition and community conversation,” said Dr. Tonya Matthews, the museum’s president and chief executive. While Gadsden’s Wharf has long been acknowledged as a historic site, she said, “we weren’t actually talking about what that history was.”

The I.A.A.M., which opens in January, will change that. Dedicated to “telling the full story of the African American journey, from ancient African civilization to modern day,” the museum’s nearly 150,000 square feet of space will include nine galleries as well as a genealogy center where visitors can get help researching their family histories. Dr. Matthews said she is already seeing a strong response from the public.

“We are clearly in a period of acceleration in our conversations around African American history, the African American journey, race and racial justice — and the museum is in the middle of that,” Dr. Matthews said.

I reached Dr. Matthews via a video call at her office in Charleston. Over the course of the interview, she talked about the link between curiosity and courage, and the relationship between struggle, triumph and joy.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Charleston’s history is deeply bound up in slavery, but that’s probably not in the front of most visitors’ minds. Do you think the museum will shift the tourist narrative?

One of the things that I’ve been most excited about is the enthusiasm that I see in Charleston’s tourism industry to have the museum come online. One of the things that I’d like to see, and that I am proud to be starting to see, is more of a weaving of the conversation about not just slavery, but African American history more broadly, throughout our city, throughout our region. And I think we can leverage the museum — this big, bright, shiny new jewel in our tourism portfolio — to expand that story throughout Charleston and the Lowcountry.

The museum is situated on a wharf in what was once one of the most prolific slave-trading ports in the United States.Credit…Ellis Creek Photography

I’d love to hear about the museum building itself, which I know is the work of a very well-known architecture firm.

Mr. Henry Cobb is the architect who designed the building. When we explained to him what the museum was about and where we were located, he took on the language himself of the site being hallowed. He said that it was going to be one of the greatest challenges of his career to design a building where the ground that the building stands on is more important than the building itself. And so out of that understanding, he decided to raise the museum up onto 13-foot pillars, so that even the museum would not touch the ground. That created space underneath, where we have our African Ancestors Memorial Garden, which is open to the public.

What will visitors find inside the museum?

One thing I would highlight is the Carolina Gold Gallery, where we go in depth on the story of rice, which is our cash crop. Here we talk about innovation and technology, which are not usually words that you associate with slavery. But we show how it was the knowledge and technology of the Africans who were kidnapped and transported to Charleston that allowed rice production here to become a global industry, and to make us the richest colony in our budding nation. So we tell the whole truth: We talk about the inhumanity of slavery without losing sight of the humanity of the people.

The other one I would point out is the Gullah Geechee gallery. The Gullah Geechee people are an African American community that range up and down the coast from North Carolina to northern Florida who have kept incredible ties to their African origin communities. You can hear it in the language, taste it in the food, see it in the craftsmanship. And a lot of these things are what South Carolina and the Lowcountry are famous for. I’m excited to be able to tell that story, particularly because the Gullah Geechee community is still alive, thriving and modern — so we have a living history gallery inside a history museum.

Parts of the museum might bring up strong emotions. How are you preparing for that?

We have a real emphasis on cultural-competency training and cultural-empathy training with our staff. Empathy is going to have to be one of our superpowers. But I would also say that there is actually a lot of joy in our site, and that has to do with how we put the story of slavery in full context. If you just tell the story by itself, it’s an unfinished story; it’s also a traumatic and a sad story. But when you start with the majestic origins of the people and the culture, and you continue through this period of slavery and talk about what has been happening since and the way we can continue to move forward — there’s a very different feel. And that’s when the joy and the triumph and the resilience all start to come through.

I think visitors will have moments of historical discovery, perhaps some moments of self-discovery. And I think there will also be moments of validation and recognition. I want people to walk away with what I call the “unscratchable itch for what’s next.” If we do this well, then it will be clear to anyone walking out of the museum that there is so much more to know.

You have a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering and worked at the F.D.A. before moving to the museum world. What inspired your shift to public education?

Even as a graduate student and then as a career professional in engineering and technology, I always gravitated toward work-force development, education or helping folks engage with technology they did not understand. I would use curiosity to inspire folks to push themselves just enough to get through the science, the math and the engineering. And I find the same thing in history: Sometimes history requires a little courage. So I use curiosity and storytelling to help folks get that extra inspiration to push through the tough stuff.

You earned your bachelor’s at Duke and your Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins. Have those experiences informed your work at the museum?

There’s a phrase that I think everyone uses now, but it’s definitely an African American colloquialism: We like to say the struggle is real. I’ve had my share of blessings and privileges that helped me get to where I am, but I’ve had my own struggles and challenges, too. I know what it’s like to step into uncharted waters; to be the first in your family to step through doors and not be sure if you’re going to be welcomed. I think those kinds of things do strengthen your empathy muscle, and I bring that into the museum. I think it helps me understand how to support the visitor experience, and how to craft the way we tell stories.

It seems like “the struggle is real” could be a theme for the museum itself.

You know, you can’t understand my joy if you don’t understand my story. I don’t want to say that trauma is required to have joy, but it’s like many of the great stories in human history: The struggle makes the triumph much more real, much more meaningful. Understanding how dark it was helps us understand how far we have come. It helps us see that there is no excuse for not completing the rest of the journey, and it gives us faith that we can get through the period that we’re in now. It doesn’t tell us how to do it; it simply shows us that we can.

Paige McClanahan, a regular contributor to the Travel section, is also the host of The Better Travel Podcast.

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