Tourists walk past the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture on July 16, 2015, in Washington, D.C. The museum is set to open September 2016.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

As the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture continues to prepare for its grand opening in September, so does the collection that museum curators are pulling together to display for guests.

The latest acquisition, according to WJLA, is iron ballasts recovered from a Portuguese slave ship that sank in the 1790s off the coast of South Africa. The pieces were pulled from the water in 2014.

"As far as we know, this is the first archaeologically documented wreck of a ship that was carrying enslaved Africans," Paul Gardullo, museum curator, said Wednesday, according to the news station.

According to the Washington Post, the ballasts were often used to weigh down slave ships, compensating for the relatively light weight of the humans who were treated as cargo aboard. The four ballasts delivered to a storage site for the museum Wednesday weighed 88 pounds each.

"This is an incredibly profound moment. These things are heavy," Gardullo said as he helped lift one of the ballasts out of a wooden box, WJLA notes. "They are heavy physically, but they're heavy emotionally."


Some of the iron ballast bars that were shipped to the U.S. to be displayed at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Washington Post video screenshot

When the ship, named the São José-Paquete de Africa, sank back in the 1794, more than 500 enslaved Africans were on board, their destination set for northern Brazil, the Post notes. However, the ship was blown into the dangerous waters near Cape Town and was impaled on the rocks. According to the Post, approximately 212 enslaved people drowned in the cold waters, while another 11 died over the next few days.

"An object like this makes it very tangible, makes it very real, makes it very personal and human," Gardullo added, according to WJLA.


Read more at WJLA and the Washington Post.