Posted on December 23, 2021

International African American Museum Struggles With Turnover, Morale, Memo Alleges

Adam Parker, Post and Courier, December 20, 2021

The International African American Museum’s former director of planning and operations has sent a blunt warning to the institution’s board members about numerous problems that could impact its opening, planned for late-2022.

In a lengthy memorandum obtained by The Post and Courier, which was first sent to the executive committee in November, then to the full board, Bernice Chu expressed deep concerns about staffing, leadership, diversity, low morale and a “toxic” and “siloed” work environment. Her memo lays out problems that, for years, some insiders have whispered about and some outside observers have feared.

In the past 2½ years, at least seven staff members or contracted employees have left the organization, three since Tonya Matthews was named chief executive officer in May, including Chu, according to the memo. Chu’s contract was terminated by Matthews on June 8, but Chu was asked by members of the executive committee to return. She agreed, but left her position on Nov. 15.

“It has hemorrhaged prominent Black scholars and professionals and is becoming a known racist and misogynistic organization,” Chu wrote. “Mayor (Joe) Riley, IAAM’s supporters, and the local and global communities deserve so much more than what IAAM has become.”

Chu, a respected museum professional who was tasked with overseeing IAAM’s build-out phase, alleged that too many women have left the board and staff, partly because their voices were not valued sufficiently, and talented Black women, such as Brenda Tindal and Joy Bivins, received inadequate support though both were capable of becoming CEO. The organization’s staff and board, though committed to interpreting the African American experience, generally has become more White, Chu said. And protecting problematic staff members because they are Black heightens morale problems, she added.

Bernard Powers, a historian and board member who served as interim CEO after Michael Boulware Moore left in August 2019, said start-up organizations often experience growing pains and changes of personnel.

“It’s not unprecedented for museums that deal with controversial subjects,” he said.

But Chu — who is Asian American, a trained architect who manages museum construction projects and operations, and a veteran of the Art Institute of Chicago, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Botanical Garden and James Museum of Western Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg, Fla. — has insisted the problems confronting IAAM are not typical. Staff turnover, for example, already has sent discreet signals through the museum sector, she wrote.


As a result of the dysfunctional work environment, the museum risks compromising its mission and its success when it opens to the public, Chu warned in her memo. Museum officials have said they plan a soft opening sometime during the summer of 2022 and a formal opening in the fall. They are actively seeking an education director.


Museum leaders raised more than $100 million in public and private donations before breaking ground in mid-2019, and millions more since.


Matthews acknowledged the museum has been the subject of controversy and concern for years.

“I have inherited everything — many would say, a host of problems,” she said. “But what I would say is I’ve inherited a host of opportunities and potential solutions. I do value being at an organization that is on the cusp of such great change, such great challenge.”

She said she regrets the loss of some talented people and stands by her decision to hire others.

“A big part of getting the museum ready is filling out staff and bringing on the most qualified people the country has to offer us,” Matthews said. “We’re looking for folks with museum experience and passion for the mission.”

She said a diverse staff that includes professional African Americans is a priority.

“We are working diligently to center the African American voice and history in everything we do.”

Zinnia Willits, executive director of the Southeastern Museums Conference, which is part of the national watchdog and accreditation group American Alliance of Museums, has worked on a number of museum startup, renovation and expansion projects. She was director of collections and operations at the Gibbes Museum from 2003 to 2020. Willits said startup projects typically must avoid certain known pitfalls. Too often they:

  • Focus more on the physical building than on programming and operations, forming a cohesive staff and fostering productive collaboration.
  • Suffer from “founder’s syndrome,” in which the people who initiate a project and raise the capital insist on retaining control or asserting their influence broadly.
  • Hire people to help with just one phase of the project, then replace them with others, making it difficult to engender a healthy work culture.
  • Conceive of their museum as unique and therefore isolated from the rest of the museum and academic world, which discourages open communication with other cultural institutions.
  • Fail to involve museum professionals early in the design process, inadvertently creating a metaphorical square space into which staff must try to squeeze a round program.

At IAAM, the building was designed before the exhibitions and the narrative were fully developed, Willits noted.


She said the new museum can play a role in encouraging a difficult reckoning underway in the country.

“I do want the museum to play its role around racial reconciliation, restorative justice,” she said. “I think museums are a great venue. We are designed to not be intimidating. We are designed for public learning.”

If an institution built upon Gadsden’s Wharf, a point of entry for tens of thousands of enslaved Africans at the turn of the 19th century, can foster racial reconciliation, then such healing is possible anywhere, Matthews said.

“That is the gift that Charleston is on the verge of offering the nation.”