At the place where nearly half of all enslaved Africans were taken to North America in the 18th and 19th centuries, there now stands a museum dedicated to preserving this terrible history. The International African American Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, hovers four metres above the ground — an elegant single-storey volume, it houses the memory of what happened here, when the site was better known as Gadsden’s Wharf. At the height of the international slave trade (between 1783 and 1807), the 255-metre river wharf was the landing post for 100,000 West Africans.
The museum represents a two-decades-long collaboration among Pei Cobb Freed & Partners and Moody Nolan, Hood Design Studio and Ralph Appelbaum Associates. By way of explaining why he chose to elevate the building, the late Henry N. Cobb, its lead designer, wrote at the project’s inception, “Gadsden’s Wharf is not just the right place to tell this story; it is hallowed ground. The special design challenge of the museum is to build on this site without occupying it.”
Measuring 130 metres long and 25 metres wide, the structure is clad on its long side walls in pale yellow brick; the end walls – fully glazed – are framed by African sapele louvres. The entire structure is supported by 18 pillars arranged in two rows and finished in traditional oyster-shell tabby, which is also used to pave sections of the landscape.
The pavement beneath the building creates a plaza, free and open to the public for both informal and programmed events. It forms part of the African Ancestors Memorial Garden, the landscape, by Hood Design Studio, that flows around and under the entire building. The landscape weaves together three main components, according to Hood Design Studio: “water referring to the Atlantic Passage, gardens that are places of reflection and contain local plants brought via the African diaspora, and archaeological markings that are physical history embedded in the ground.”
At the plaza’s eastern border, aligning with the archaeological boundary of the historic wharf, is the Water’s Edge Fountain. When the shallow fountain is drained, the full-scale outlines of human bodies come into view. The engraving is a reference to the 1788 diagram of the Brookes (or Brooks) slave ship, which depicted how enslaved people could be packed into boats.
“It’s almost revelatory to a certain degree,” Walter Hood told Azure in 2021, when discussing how this cruel document came to inspire his design. “I can look at a lot of these images and things from that time period, and where I used to look at it and go ‘I don’t wanna touch that’ there is now a need to somehow mine that experience and try to re-present it in a way so that people can find places for reconciliation.” Bordering the fountain is a stainless steel band that traces the historic line of Gadsden’s Wharf. It’s engraved with the names of ports that “marked the beginning and end of countless journeys during the transatlantic slave trade.”
Running east to west, a walkway delineated by 2.5-metre tall black granite walls leads visitors on a sombre procession along the contours of the wharf’s erstwhile storehouse, where enslaved people were held before being sold. Here, cast-concrete figures of Africans are crouched down in silence.
This evocation of hiding also resonates in the gardens to the north of the museum, which are inspired by “hush harbours,” which were “landscapes where enslaved Africans would gather, always in secret, outside the view of slave owners, to freely assemble, share stories, and keep traditions from their homeland alive.” Serpentine brick walls and sculptural benches allow for visitors to take a moment of repose and contemplate.
Inside the building, Ralph Appelbaum Associates (RAA) has brought to life an exhibition design that begins with an introductory corridor and orientation theatre leading to multimedia displays of “South Carolina and Gullah Geechee culture, African roots, and the Atlantic world.” Also included in the museum are narratives about the legacies of slavery and current movements around racial equality and social justice as well as a genealogy centre featuring the museum’s unique collection of primary sources, documents and texts.
At a time when certain parties are seeking to suppress the truth of this history, powerful cultural projects like the IAAM are needed more than ever.
Lead image by Sahar Coston – Hardy Esto
The IAAM in Charleston, South Carolina, combines architecture, landscape and exhibition design to powerfully convey a part of American history that needs to be remembered.