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Poetic interpreter of African American Culture



Photo provided by Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau

By: Claudie Benjamin, Guest Writer

Balancing poetry with the navigation of down-to-earth realities comes naturally to Dr. Tonya Matthews (above), President and CEO of Charleston’s International African American Museum (IAAM).

As a poet, she resonates with the beautiful lyrical large-scale video presentation in the entry hall of the museum that invites visitors to define for themselves the images that connect with the African American experience from past to present. At the same time, she embraces the challenge of highlighting, in an instructive way, the struggles and achievements of African Americans, the famous and everyday heroes that many consider are too little known by the general public.

Mathews’ academic training as a biomedical engineer and her experience working at a science center museum has made her an expert in what in a clinical field is known as a bench-to-bedside approach. She knows how to translate complex scientific concepts and research to highlight how they are clinically useful in patient care. And, she pointed out recently, how this process of “translation” of the written record, images and artifacts is also an important guiding approach that informs her leadership of the museum.

Discussing balancing the presentation of information at the newly opened museum, Dr. Matthews said, “I think people want to learn something new.  They are also interested in connecting with something that in some way feels personal or familiar.”

Dr. Matthews is frequently described as “a visionary”. How does she expect the museum to evolve under her leadership? Matthews said the initial goal following the opening of the IAAM doors a few months ago was to bring people into the museum.  This success can be measured through the often sold out status of tickets to experience the IAAM.  For Dr. Matthews, broader goals are already in the works. More specifically,  1) Sitting at the table among community decision-makers to be part of multi-disciplinary projects. 2) Expanding mutually supportive relationships with cultural institutions in other countries like Ghana, Kenya, Barbados and Belize that have historical links to the Charleston area. 

Dr. Matthews poetic spirit emerges fluidly with her professional role as an interpreter of African American heritage and her take on Charleston as a newcomer. She said she’s drawn, for example, to “the exceptionally  loud noise- making frogs and crickets of John’s Island” as well as to the cultural history of  Awendaw, the small fishing village in Mt. Pleasant, historically an African American community.  Also, unmistakable is Dr. Matthews’ interest in distinctive garments which she designs with a seamstress who lives and works in North Charleston.  As Museum CEO, she happily has numerous occasions to wear these locally made works of art.

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