Arts and Culture 2011

Amy Holtcamp



Museum of the Week – The Charleston Museum

Posted 8/6/2010 5:15:00 AM

The Charleston Museum has the distinction of being the oldest museum in America. Charlestonians founded the museum in 1773, inspired by the recently opened British Museum in London. Over the years, the Charleston Museum has been decimated by fire and forced to close its doors during two wars. But the museum’s dedication to preserving and celebrating Charleston’s history has never wavered.

The permanent exhibits at the Charleston Museum boast an impressive collection of
silver and an assortment of decorative arts from the city, always known for its elegant and well-appointed homes.

The historical exhibitions are a great introduction to the city, providing a timeline and back story for the other historical sites in Charleston. The museum is located directly across the street from the Visitors’ Center and makes a handy jumping-off point for further exploration.

Make sure you don’t miss the display of slave tags in the historical section. During the mid-1800s, slave owners would often lease their slaves out to work as servants, mechanics, carpenters, cooks or in other trades. For the duration of their time as leased-out labor, slaves were required to wear these copper badges that were issued to slave-owners by the city as licenses at a rate of $2 per year. Seeing these tags, worn by slaves every day, is a chilling, visceral reminder of the reality of slavery.

I really enjoyed a peek into The Charleston Museum: The Early Days. This little gallery houses some of the artifacts from the museum’s past. These include plastercast replicas of other museum’s properties, like the British Museum’s bust of Ramses II, scientific specimens and a mummy. The items on display might not be of much modern interest, but the room as a whole is a fascinating glimpse at the changing priorities and tastes of museums and museum patrons.

Right now, visitors to Charleston still have a chance to see two wonderful temporary exhibits that illuminate the lives of Charlestonians past and present.

Aisle Say: 150 Years of Wedding Fashion has just been extended through August 29. The exhibit includes wedding dresses, shoes, veils and accessories from weddings in the city from the early 1800s through the 1960s. Although the focus here is always on Charleston, the collection does a great job of explaining the ways that American wedding traditions developed. One of the most compelling parts of the exhibit, however, is at the end where visitors have been asked to share their Charleston wedding story. You can also read all of the stories on the Aisle Say blog. There’s also a place where girls (of any age) can try on wedding gowns and veils. Although I didn’t see many men at this exhibit, I saw a lot of happy moms, daughters and excited brides-to-be enjoying these dreamy dresses of taffeta, silk and old-fashioned lace.

While you are checking out the wedding dresses at the museum, make sure to stop by another great special exhibit: Preciousness Preserved: Jewelry from the Charleston Museum’s Collections from Antiquity to Today. This exhibit runs now through Sept. 6. The jewelry is magnificent, much of it glittering with diamonds and other gems. But it is the display of mourning and hair work pieces that is the most surprising and revealing of Charleston’s history.

In the Victorian era, jewelry made out of human hair was considered fashionable and stylish. It was particularly popular as a piece of memorial jewelry; the hair of a dead loved one would be fashioned into a stylish brooch that you could wear near your heart every day. The pieces on display at the museum are as fascinating as they are beautiful.

The Charleston Museum is open Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. It is located on 360 Meeting St. directly across from the Charleston Visitor Center. Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for children. For more information visit the museum’s website at

Museum-going can really work up an appetite, so I would be remiss if I didn’t share that the Charleston Museum is right down the street from two of my favorite snack shops in Charleston: The Macaroon Boutique and Paolo’s Gelato. Enjoy!