CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - The International African American Museum names Dr. Tonya M. Matthews, national leader in African American history and STEM education, as new CEO.
17 months after breaking ground on the museum, the board of directors says they selected Matthews as CEO because she is an experienced executive, thought leader and has a proven track record in organizational leadership, strategic planning, diversity and inclusion, program development, project management and vast visitor, and community engagements initiatives.
Matthews is founder of The STEMinista Project, a ground-breaking, national initiative that inspires middle-school girls to consider tools and careers in STEM.
The museum says Matthews’ most recent position was Associate Provost of Inclusive Workforce Development and Director of the STEM Innovation Learning Center at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.
Matthews received her undergraduate degree from Duke University in biomedical and electrical engineering and her doctoral degree from Johns Hopkins University in biomedical engineering. The museum says she plans to engineer a global success with a world-class museum at the site where more enslaved Africans entered bondage than any other place in the United States.
“The International African American Museum is poised to be a critical global treasure,” said Matthews. “I am both humbled and compelled to step into the role of CEO of this incredible institution that is so necessary for these incredible times – and beyond.”
Matthews said she is already proud of her new home.
“I am excited to stand with the people of Charleston as we steward this sacred site and the often-silenced stories of American history – both the horrific and the victorious – that continue to challenge our efforts to create a more perfect union,” she said. “This is a national story with global impact, and we look forward to engaging the critical partnerships and support that are needed to help us sustain this work.”
IAAM Board Chairman Wilbur Johnson said that that finding Matthews was the final task of a 20-year journey.
“The infrastructure of any enterprise, in this case this amazing museum, is a vital component of the project and for that reason, we were really keen on finding someone who we thought could not only lead this project but also inspire the staff and the visitors and everyone who will be interested in this project,” he said. “So, we spent a fair amount of time trying to find that person who could be inspirational. And we think we’ve found someone who has the credentials who has the experience to manage the project but who can also inspire those who work with the museum and those who will be visiting and participating in the museum’s programs.”
Former Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr., who has called the museum “his life’s most important work,” said he was thrilled.
Matthews said her previous experiences with history museums and organizational diversity and inclusion have prepared her for this job, which she considers her greatest mission.
Born in Washington, D.C., and the oldest of four children to a teacher and a cop, Matthews says she had considered becoming a doctor because, “I wanted to save the world and help people,” but discovered biomedical engineering instead.
She served as Vice President of Museums for the Cincinnati Museum Center and acting Director of Inclusion for the American Alliance of Museums. The Cincinnati Museum Center is a one-of-a-kind, multi-museum complex housed in Union Terminal, a historic Art Deco train station and National Historic Landmark in the nation’s 29th largest metro region.
Matthews helped oversee a budget of $27.5 million and led the museum’s vision for education, research, and community engagement.
Matthews was steward of about 1.8 million artifacts and improved collaborative program development between the museums and research facilities to reach broader goals. She managed the first full museum accreditation of the museum center across all museums and research facilities, and she was a member of the executive leadership team that integrated the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center into the museum center.
Through a partnership with the National Museums of Kenya, Matthews connected middle school students in Cincinnati with their peers in Lamu, Kenya, the oldest continually inhabited town in the country. The program used cultural heritage research and with funding from the U.S. State Department Museums & Community Collaborations Abroad Program to connect children to children.
The program at five schools (three in the United States and two in Kenya) led to a year-long exploration of the intangible heritage of two communities, supported by distance-learning and classroom connections via telecommunications platforms, artists, storytellers and museum educators.
It is a program she plans to emulate at the International African American Museum.
The IAAM says Matthews also directed the launch of Facing Change, a national initiative to diversify museum boards across the country with founding support from the Walton, Mellon and Ford Foundations.
Matthews’ story and her successful effort to connect communities and celebrate history have defined her entire life.
Matthews also is a published and performing poet and was included in the 100 Best African-American Poems, 1st Edition (2010) edited by Nikki Giovanni. She is a recipient of the People’s Poetry Awards for “Best Page to Stage Poet” and is the original BlackWords Grand Slammin’ Champion.