Joy Bivins International African American Museum

A curator is essentially a story teller, says Joy Bivins, the new curator for Charleston's International African American Museum. Dave Munday/Staff

Looking down through the clear plastic roof of a model of Charleston’s International African American Museum, you can see the exhibit spaces marked out.

Construction on the real museum could start later this year, if the money comes in as expected, with an opening two years later.

It’s not yet been decided what artifacts or objects will fill those spaces. That’s the job of the curator, who arrived in Charleston the last of June.

Joy Bivins, the new curator, comes from the Chicago History Museum, where she spent 16 years. Filling the spaces in a museum starts with stories, even before the artifacts and objects, she said.

"Typically a curator is in charge of collecting, interpreting and caring for objects," Bivins said. "You can also think of a curator as using objects to interpret a story, so the objects bolster whatever story you’re trying to tell."

One of Biven's first projects at the Chicago History Museum was working on "Teen Chicago" with director Lonnie Bunch, before he moved to Washington, D.C., to lead the National Museum of African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian.

International African American Museum CEO Michael Boulware Moore said he was glad he could recruit her.

"Joy is a gifted, experienced curator with deep subject matter expertise," Moore said. "She will add immeasurable leadership and skill to IAAM's effort to tell the important stories of African American history. She will engage with academics far and wide, as well as community members, to refine the IAAM experience in a way that will appropriately honor those who landed on the site of the museum and their descendants."

It's possible one of Moore's ancestors could be included in the stories, Bivins said. He's a descendant of Robert Smalls, an enslaved harbor pilot who seized a Confederate ship to escape and later became a leader of the Reconstruction. A historical marker on East Bay Street summarizes his story.

Museum supporters have been collecting local stories for several years. Bivins will start going through them for accuracy and impact, for schoolchildren and teens as well as adults.

"This will not be dry," she said. "Sound scholarship is driving the content, but we will go to great lengths to make sure it is a vibrant experience and also one that has an impact on the visitor, in some places a feeling of solemnity, in other places uplifted."

The museum will be built on a site where tens of thousands of enslaved Africans entered America to be sold. African Americans across the country can trace their roots to Charleston.

"As a student of this discipline, you know the significance of Charleston and the African American story, but my people are not from this part of the South," she said.

Certainly some families migrated from Charleston to Chicago, but usually freed slaves from the Southeast went Northeast, she said. Those who lived in Mississippi went to Chicago or Milwaukee or Detroit. African Americans from Louisiana or Texas usually traveled toward California.

The museum already has a director in place for its Center for Family History, which was unveiled last July. Anthropologist Toni Carrier is recognized for her expertise in African American genealogy and traced Michelle Obama's ancestry for Obama for America.

Reach Dave Munday at 843-937-5553.