A rendering of the International African American Museum
Full Steam Ahead: Tonya Matthews, PhD, joined the International African American Museum in April 2021 and is steering its final push toward opening.
Hard Hats, Clear Vision: With construction almost complete, Matthews and her team are finalizing exhibits and programming. Here, she leads a tour for South Carolina Representative JA Moore (left); IAAM board member Lenard Larry McKelvey, a Moncks Corner native and TV and radio personality known as “Charlamagne tha God;” and his wife, Jessica Gadsden.
Matthews’s mother, Eileen, an educator and administrator, helps a young Tonya (and Mickey Mouse fan) cut her birthday cake.
Matthews’s father, Tim, was a police officer, here with Matthews and her sister Rochelle, who’s 13 months younger. “We were one word: ‘TonyaandRochelle,’” Matthews says.
With her great-grandmother, reading Tonya and Rochelle a recipe card; “I’m the one paying attention,” Matthews notes.
Shown with her older cousin Felicia and Rochelle in New Orleans, where her mother’s family is from.
Cincinnati Museum Center
While at the Cincinnati Museum Center, she initiated the Girls in Real Life Sciences (GIRLS) program that became the STEM Girls program.
Matthews also created a partnership with the National Museums of Kenya, connecting middle school students in Cincinnati with their peers in Lamu, Kenya, the oldest continually inhabited town in the country.
Working with students at CMC, Matthews began to appreciate the role of museums in the education ecosystem.
During her Ohio tenure, Matthews continued to nurture her creative side, including giving a spoken-word performance with the Cincinnati Ballet...
and publishing a poem in Nikki Giovanni’s 100 Best African American Poems (Sourcebooks MediaFusion, 2010)
The Michigan Science Center tornado exhibit
Its Smithsonian Spark Lab
and the Mars Rover exhibit
In 2015, Matthews created The STEMinista Project.
The initiative inspires middle school girls to consider careers in science, technology, engineering, and math.
In addition to inspiring students and initiating STEM programs, Matthews again brought her creativity to the Detroit cultural scene, including a spoken-word collaboration with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
Hallowed Ground: Architectural renderings of the promenade and entrance to the IAAM overlooking Charleston Harbor.
The space features the African Ancestors Memorial Garden with a tabby walkway and fountain that can be set to the tides, all located on the edge of the original Gadsden’s Wharf, where many enslaved Africans first set foot in America.
More renderings of the IAAM exterior spaces as envisioned by architects Pei Cobb Freed & Partners and Moody Nolan and landscape design firm Hood Design.
A rendering of the Gullah Geechee exhibit, which will feature a replica of the Moving Star Praise House, built on John’s Island in 1917.
The photo More Scaly Specimens by Frank G. Tarbox, of Gullah fisherman was taken on a narrow strip of land between Mosquito Creek and Winyah Bay on South Island, near Georgetown, South Carolina. The fishing village was discovered in 2017, when human remains were found in the eroding shoreline after Hurricane Irma.
Moving Star Praise House, built on John’s Island in 1917.
“Tonya searches for truth, and she finds it and tells it,” says Kitty Robinson, an IAAM board member and the former CEO of Historic Charleston Foundation.
Styling by Lisa Jean Walsh; rendering courtesy of IAAM; photographs courtesy of JA Moore, Dr. Tonya Matthews, Cincinnati Museum Center, Michigan Science Center, & @steminista.project
Read about the opportunities she sees in the museum’s educational programming and how she’s navigating the challenges that lie ahead