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International African American Museum

Pei Cobb Freed & Partners (Design Architect), Moody Nolan (Architect of Record), Hood Design Studio (Landscape Design)

Charleston, South Carolina, United States

June 2023


Henry N. Cobb FAIA (founding partner, PCF&P), Matteo Milani AIA PhD (associate partner, PCF&P) (lead designers), Curt Moody FAIA (founder, Moody Nolan), Walter Hood (creative director, Hood Design Studio) (Curt Moody: Moody Nolan partner in charge; Walter Hood: lead landscape designer)


Ralph Appelbaum (Ralph Appelbaum Associates) (Museum Planning and Exhibition Design), Guy Nordenson, PE (Guy Nordenson and Associates) (Structural Engineer), Gregory Giammalvo (Arup) (MEP, Lighting Design, Acoustical Engineer), Gary Collins, PLA (SeamonWhiteside) (Landscape Architect of Record), Trey Linton (Forsberg Engineering & Surveying, Inc.) (Civil Engineer


Tonya M. Matthews, Ph.D., President and CEO


Fernando Guerra


IAAM is dedicated to improving equity for Black and African Americans, through authentic, empathetic telling of American history. The design supports this aim with space that foregrounds the stories of the descendants of the African Diaspora in all its diversity and breadth, including its international connections and with an emphasis on its South Carolina Lowcountry roots.

The museum was proposed in 2000 by former Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr., who spearheaded a 20-year effort to bring the idea to fruition. The decision, in 2014, to locate the museum at the historical site of Gadsden’s Wharf was pivotal for the vision of what the museum could be, informing its design and furthering its mission. The building hovers above the historic site of Gadsden’s Wharf, giving primacy to this hallowed ground and the surrounding landscape, where visitors can honor African ancestors and reflect on the significance of the place where so many enslaved Africans entered the country. Sculptural installations further mark the history of the site, while the design allows for informal and programmed outdoor gatherings. Inside the building, nine galleries house an array of artifacts and multimedia displays, as well as the Center for Family History, an important genealogical resource.

Located in a floodplain, the museum is surrounded by a landscape that contributes to the sustainability of the Cooper River’s ecosystems by combining native flora and stormwater management. Low-E glazing throughout, wood sun-shading devices, and a white/off-white roofing membrane to lower the heat-island effect further reduce the project’s carbon footprint.


Sited at Gadsden’s Wharf, the port of arrival for nearly half of all enslaved Africans brought to North America, the design serves and celebrates IAAM’s mission by granting primacy to the seascape on which it fronts, the landscapes that frame it, and the memorial for which it provides shelter. The museum is housed in a one-story building measuring 84 feet wide, 426 feet long, and 24 feet high, raised 13 feet above the ground on a double row of cylindrical columns. The materials reflect a careful contextual response to a highly charged historical site. On its north and south sides, the building is clad in pale yellow brick, while the glazed end walls are framed by louvers of African sapele wood. The supporting columns are clad in traditional oyster-shell tabby, also used as paving. With the exception of two service cores framing a central skylit stairway, the ground plane of the building remains open, representing the heart of the site’s collective memory. The African Ancestors Memorial Garden embraces the entire site, bounded on one side by a shallow pool, whose sharply defined western edge marks the original seawall of Gadsden’s Wharf as it was at the beginning of the nineteenth century—the peak of the slave trade—while its soft eastern boundary evokes the limitless ocean beyond. To enter the museum, visitors are drawn in through a luminous atrium at the center of the building, moving from shadow to light as they ascend the monumental stair to the exhibition above.


Since its opening in mid-2023, IAAM has enjoyed an ever-expanding audience, with peak daily attendance of close to a thousand, reflecting its positive reception and increasingly meaningful presence in the community.

This strong engagement began early the design process, when the landscape designer organized meetings with the local community, and the entire design team—along with community advisors, IAAM staff, and city representatives—participated in an intensive three-day tour of the Gadsden’s Wharf site and North Charleston neighborhoods, occupied largely by descendants of Lowcountry enslaved people. These communities, which continue to practice the Gullah cultural traditions that permeate South Carolina’s Rice Coast, became a major source of inspiration for the landscape design, which intertwines this cultural and ecological heritage with the sustainability of the Cooper River's ecosystems. The design showcases native flora typical of Lowcountry marshes alongside plants introduced by enslaved Africans during the Atlantic passage. A sweetgrass field recalls the region’s basketweaving tradition while providing habitat for birds. Surrounding the museum, a series of gardens blends stormwater management systems with a varied tree canopy and an assortment of plants of cultural importance, enhancing the museum's educational mission and providing shading and respite for the public.

IAAM continues to nurture its local connections in many ways, from offering outreach to the Gullah Geechee community and developing a robust school field-trip program to hosting workshops in Studio Time, a flexible space designed for creative programming. Recent activities include the Young Griots drop-in workshop, which connects participants to the West African storytelling tradition through conversations about resistance, empowerment, and hope.

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