International African American Museum Pei Cobb Freed & Partners
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Charleston's International African American Museum opens its doors

This exhibition complex for African American history stands in the South Carolina port city where the slavery boats used to dock

Pei Cobb Freed & Partners

International African American Museum Pei Cobb Freed & Partners
By Editorial Staff -

The International African American Museum (IAAM) in Charleston, South Carolina, has finally opened its doors after more than two decades of work to implement the project by Pei Cobb Freed & Partners and Moody Nolan. Inaugurated in June, the museum complex focusing on African American history is situated on the waterfront in Charleston, the main port of arrival in North America for the Africans forced into slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries. Located where the boats transporting enslaved Africans used to disembark, Gadsden’s Wharf, the IAAM aims to narrate and commemorate these men's and women's stories, journeys and testimonies, also through their descendants' contribution.

Henry N. Cobb, who has since passed away, commented at the project outset: "As the place at which many thousands of Africans from diverse cultures first set foot in North America, Gadsden’s Wharf is not just the right place to tell this story; it is hallowed ground."


International African American Museum - Pei Cobb Freed & Partners © Mike Habat, courtesy of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners


International African American Museum

The form and materials of the IAAM architecture enables the seascape to take on a leading role, framing the panorama and beckoning it into the exhibition spaces. The building is a single-storey rectangular volume measuring 130 by 25 meters, and is raised above the surrounding ground by 18 pillars arranged in two rows. The long side walls are finished in sand-color brick, while the glass fronts positioned at the building ends are framed in sapele wood, also known as African mahogany. Instead, the cylindrical pillars supporting the structure are clad in tabby concrete, made by burning oyster shells to create the lime that is then mixed with water, sand, ash and broken oyster shells. This same material has also been used for the flooring in some sections of the outdoor areas.

The building's ground floor therefore remains completely open, except for two auxiliary volumes next to the central staircase, which is lit by a skylight. To the east of this open space, towards the port and the ocean, an expanse of water traces out ‒ using a band of stainless steel ‒ the position of Gadsden's Wharf as it was at the start of the 19th century, when the slave trade was at its most intense. On the west side, towards Concord Street and Gadsdenborough Park, the granite paving instead marks out an area for various activities, such as workshops and group performances.


International African American Museum - Pei Cobb Freed & Partners © Sahar Coston-Hardy/Esto, courtesy of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners


African Ancestors Memorial Garden

The African Ancestors Memorial Garden, by Hood Design Studio, has been conceived as a space for remembrance and reflection, and fully circles the IAAM. Drawing on the surrounding landscape and the far-reaching heritage of African diaspora, the garden recognizes and underscores the wharf 's history, revealing its sacred and spiritual nature.


"The International African American Museum is more than a mark of architecture, it’s an extraordinary milestone. Having worked for the last 15 years to dream this into being, we are intimately aware of the cultural significance it has for American history. Without this building, this sacred site would have remained unknown and the stories of our ancestors untold. It’s an honor and a privilege to work on a project that has this kind of tenacity, and we recognize that the opportunity to leave an impression on people around the world, for generations to come, is a rare gift."
Curt Moody, founder of Moody Nolan

A blend of ecology and crafting creates an environment fostering contemplation and dialogue, with a series of sub‐gardens nestled within green nature, to celebrate African Americans' artistry and manual know-how. The garden's centerpiece is an expanse of water that pays tribute to the treacherous journeys faced by those forced into slavery: figures emerge from under the water's surface through visual interplay, representing the enslaved people crammed inside the slave boats that used to sail the Atlantic route.

International African American Museum - Pei Cobb Freed & Partners © Mike Habat, courtesy of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners


The museum spaces

A well-lit foyer welcomes visitors at the building entrance, creating a sort of shift from shadow to light, and accompanies them up the monumental staircase. This entrance sequence was in fact conceived as a transition space between the garden and the museum, where the exhibition design is by Ralph Appelbaum Associates.

On the next floor, broad windows open onto views of the port to the east and the city of Charleston to the west, alternating between these and the narrative of the installations. The museum offers nine halls for its permanent exhibitions ‒ which include 150 historical items, over 30 artworks and almost 50 multimedia experiences ‒ and a 280 m2 space given over to temporary exhibitions. The Center for Family History ‒ with archives for African American genealogy research ‒ is found at the end of the edifice.


Location: Charleston, Carolina, USA
Completion: 2023
Gross Floor Area: 3883 m2
Design Architect: Pei Cobb Freed & Partners
Executive Architect, FF&E, Signage: Moody Nolan

Landscape: Hood Design Studio
Exhibition Design: Ralph Appelbaum Associates (RAA)
Structures: Guy Nordenson and Associates
MEP/FP, Acoustics, Lighting: Arup

Photography by Mike Habat and Sahar Coston-Hardy/Esto, courtesy of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners

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