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Exhibits define ‘one of the most important museums in the world’ in Charleston

Christina Lee Knauss //June 22, 2023//

Exhibits define ‘one of the most important museums in the world’ in Charleston

Christina Lee Knauss //June 22, 2023//

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For the past year, Malika N. Pryor has had to work on answering a question that not many people deal with in their lifetimes: how do you convey a story that is historically and emotionally complex to as many different people as possible, in a way that they will understand and embrace?

That has been Pryor’s challenge since July 2022 when she was appointed chief learning and engagement officer for the International African American Museum in Charleston.

Her role is to create programs and experiences for a diverse audience ranging from children and senior citizens and including everyone in between. The museum’s goal is to tell the stories of the African-American experience and its impact on the United States and the world, tracing those tales from their roots in Africa to arrival in the U.S.

This important historical work is being done on a site that many people consider sacred. The museum is built at the former site of Gadsden’s Wharf, which was the location where an estimated 100,000 enslaved Africans came ashore during the peak of the international slave trade.

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Working to open the museum that will tell their stories as well as others has been the center of museum staff members’ focus for months.

“We’re in the home stretch now — it’s really an exciting time,” Pryor said in a recent interview with SC Biz News. “Everyone is working hard and doing the things that need to be done. I think it’s safe to say we all just feel so honored and blessed to be able to be a part of this and bring it to the finish line. It’s an incredible honor, and I’m not sure those words fully encapsulate the emotion that comes out of this work.”

A background based on history

Pryor’s passion for preserving history and helping to interpret it for diverse audiences has led her to work here in the U.S. and abroad.

A native of Detroit, Pryor holds a bachelor’s degree in organizational studies and Afro-American and African studies from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and got a law degree from Wayne State University’s law school.

She practiced law in Atlanta for several years before returning to Detroit to begin her journey in the nonprofit and museum worlds by serving as director of education and programs at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. She then started her own nonprofit consulting firm focused on serving emerging, community-based organizations with an emphasis on those with BIPOC founders (Black, Indigenous and People of Color.)

From there, it was back to museums as Pryor joined the National Art Gallery of the Bahamas to establish the communications and education department. While living abroad, she also founded the Curlyfest Bahamas Festival.

After her time in the Bahamas, she returned to her home city to serve as senior director of education programs and outreach for the Detroit Historical Society, working on innovative programs and experiences such as “Invoking the Spirit: Detroit’s Black Bottom,” a digital exhibition and walking tour depicting the lives of one of the city’s most historic African-American neighborhoods.

Pryor said one of the most intriguing challenges she faces is coming up with ways to inform people about the African American experience from both an international and very local perspective.

“Here in Charleston, I have had to activate and employ virtually every experience I’ve had in my work in the past, whether designing experiences and exhibitions that speak to very local questions or those histories that have national implications and are connected to larger, international narratives,” she said.

Malika N. Pryor, chief learning and engagement officer  at IAAM, says the museum's exhibits appeal to a wide  audience. (Photo/Provided)

Sparking interest for a wide array of audiences

Pryor said her work in the Bahamas has helped her in her Charleston work because in many ways the locations are similar, and the museums are similar in the stories they are trying to tell.

“When I worked for the national institution in the Bahamas, I was in a country with a very nuanced and complex history with some difficult elements, and it was also a center of tourism with an economy constructed to bring people from all over the world,” she said. “In many ways, Charleston is the same. We’re having to look at how to be an institution that must take on questions of the moment as well as explore history and culture with depth and with honesty, while also presenting it in a way that is accessible and digestible for an incredibly wide audience.”

Pryor said the museum’s permanent exhibits as well as its visiting ones are designed to spark interest for a wide range of audiences. Its first visiting exhibit, “Men of Change,” is a traveling exhibit from the Smithsonian making its only South Carolina stop in Charleston.

Museum officials are also hoping to reach young people across the state with a program that offers free admission to the museum for every student in South Carolina. Pryor said she is working to develop partnerships with school districts across the state to develop multi-faceted learning experiences for student based at the museum.

One of the most unique elements at the IAAM is the Center for Family History, which is designed to enable visitors to connect with their family history. During the pandemic, the Center developed a series of monthly webinars that focused on how to do genealogy, and Pryor said those will continue. There will also be drop-in “Genealogy 101” courses offered for visitors. For those interested in the arts, there will also be monthly creative workshops in the museum’s studio space.

Putting all of these programs together is a challenge, but it is all worth it, Pryor said.

“At the end of the day after spending 20 years in the non-profit sector, 13 of them in the museum sector, I can say after this experience that I was part of the leadership team to open one of the most important museums in the world,” she said.

Transatlantic Crossings' is one of 11 core exhibits on display at the International African American Museum,  which will feature over 150 historical objects and over 30 works of art. (Rendering/Provided)

Here's a glimpse at the galleries and exhibits at the International African American Museum

The International African American Museum features nine galleries housing 11 core exhibits and one changing exhibit that rotates two to three times annually. The core exhibits include over 150 historical objects, over 30 works of art, nearly 50 films and digital interactives.

Transatlantic Experience | Media Experience

The Transatlantic Experience provides visitors with a large-scale immersive media experience. Situated as the entry point to the east wing of IAAM, this gallery features eight large video screens.

The Theater | Grounding Film

The Theater features films and videos, which provide broad historical context and further orient the visitor to the overall museum experience through a narrative storytelling format.

Gullah Geechee Gallery | Gullah Geechee Exhibit

With a focus on the Lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia, the Gullah Geechee Gallery provides an introduction to Gullah Geechee history and culture.

South Carolina Connections Gallery | South Carolina Connections Exhibit

The South Carolina Connections Gallery focuses on African American and African diasporic history that is within and historically interconnected to South Carolina. This gallery tells stories of resistance and achievement, from the many local, national, and international influential African Americans in South Carolina's history.

African Roots & Routes Gallery | African Roots & African Routes Exhibits

The African Roots Exhibit explores the diverse empires, cultures, historic figures, knowledge systems, and technologies of West and West Central Africa — the areas of origin connected to Africans forced to the Americas.

The African Routes: Diaspora in the Atlantic World Exhibit illuminates stories that exemplify the influence and movement of people of African descent throughout the Atlantic World over time, from the Transatlantic slave trade to the 21st century.

Atlantic Worlds Gallery | Atlantic Worlds Exhibit

The Atlantic Worlds Gallery explores the nuanced historical connections throughout the Black Atlantic World.

Carolina Gold Gallery | Carolina Gold & Memories of the Enslaved Exhibits

The Carolina Gold Exhibit demonstrates the transformative impact of enslaved people who labored on plantations in South Carolina and helped build the lucrative rice industry.

The Memories of the Enslaved Exhibit utilizes quotes and insight of formally enslaved people to examine the brutality of chattel slavery.

American Journeys Gallery | American Journeys Exhibit

The American Journeys Gallery presents key moments, figures, and movements in African American history that are interconnected with South Carolina, showing how they shaped, and were shaped, by local, national, and international cultures, politics, and economies.

Special Exhibitions Gallery

The Special Exhibitions Gallery is a 3000 square-foot space dedicated to temporary, rotating exhibits.

Men of Change | Special Exhibitions Gallery Installation

Men of Change: Power. Triumph. Truth. presents for new generations the stories of significant African American men, the known and unknown leaders who stand as national icons.

Creative Journeys Exhibit

The Creative Journeys Exhibit consists of artwork, poems, films and creative materials placed throughout IAAM.

Digital Exhibits

IAAM utilizes the Google Arts & Culture platform to develop and publish digital exhibits which explore themes and special topics relevant to the museum's mission.