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America’s First Museum - Part I
250 Years of Collecting, Preserving, and Educating
Part 1 – December 17, 2022 – June 4, 2023 Part 2 – June 17, 2023 – January 7, 2024 Historic Textiles Gallery
Commemorating two and a half centuries since its founding and spanning nearly 4.6 billion years of history, we are pleased to present America’s First Museum: 250 Years of Collecting, Preserving, and Educating. This year-long exhibit features a wide array of objects that tells the story of this impressive institution and its remarkable collections.
Part one highlights objects from ancient Rome, a Chief’s helmet from the Sandwich Islands acquired in 1798, Colonial dress, and Japanese Samurai armor. Opening mid-year, part two will showcase a church pew made by enslaved hands measuring 20 feet in length, centuries old Archaic carved bone pins, a skull from the largest known flying bird and a couture Fortuny gown.
We hope you will join us for this extraordinary milestone!
This year marks the 250th anniversary of The Charleston Museum, the first museum created in North America. Founded on January 12, 1773, by members of the Charleston Library Society, many of the first objects received were worldly curiosities and treasures brought to port by ship captains.
Mahiole, c. 1798 (right) This woven crested Chief’s helmet, or mahiole, came from the Sandwich Islands, now Hawaii. Originally covered entirely in feathers, this is one of the oldest extant pieces recorded in the original accession book (left).
Throughout the years, the collections expanded to include such diverse objects as Egyptian artifacts, skeletal mounts of various animal specimens, early furniture, gemstones, pottery, and textiles. During the 20th century, the Museum’s focus shifted toward the collecting of objects related to the cultural and natural history of the South Carolina Lowcountry, the emphasis of its current mission.
Flag, 1861 This flag, bloodstained from use in battle in 1861, is attributed to the Palmetto Guard, a South Carolina militia unit that fought for the Confederacy. Together, blood and cotton are a poignant and haunting reminder of the lives affected by the oppressive institution of slavery, and the war that ultimately brought it to an end.
Throughout the past two and half centuries, the Museum has survived multiple moves, fires, wars, natural disasters, and most recently a worldwide pandemic. Today it houses over 2.4 million objects and continues to educate visitors from all over the world.
Portrait of Tobias Scott, 1885–1890 (left) Tobias Scott (1827–1904) was born with slave status on a James Island plantation, but his enslaver permitted him to make and sell fans in his spare time. Eventually, Scott was able to purchase his freedom and moved to a house in Charleston with his wife Christiana after the Civil War. Courtesy of the descendants of Tobias & Christiana Scott, 2015
Fan, c. 1880 (right) Scott’s talent can be clearly seen in the fine work on the fan handle and selection of well matched feathers. As written in an 1886 Charleston News and Courier article, a visitor to Scott’s shop at 17 Water Street noted the fans of all plumages were of a “rare and exquisite beauty.”
We are excited to display, in two parts, a year-long exhibit featuring a wide array of objects that span nearly 4.6 billion years. Please enjoy viewing the following objects that highlight the Museum’s rich history of collecting, preserving, and educating.
Dress, 1890 Madame Pauline Seba was a milliner and dressmaker who learned her trade at a New York school before returning to Charleston. This dress with full gigot sleeves was created for the trousseau of Miss Sara C. Simonds in January 1890.
To celebrate our 250th anniversary milestone, the Museum has published this special volume, The Charleston Museum: America’s First Museum,which documents its history and impressive collections in archaeology, natural history, archived materials, decorative arts, and historic textiles, as well as its preservation of historic landmarks, such as the Heyward-Washington House, the Joseph Manigault House, and the Dill Sanctuary, a 580-acre wildlife refuge on nearby James Island.
This handsomely illustrated commemorative volume brings its rich history to life, offering insights into many of its 2.4 million collected artifacts while detailing the contributions of key figures, such as Gabriel Manigault, Laura Bragg, and Milby Burton, who made it one of the premier museums in the southern United States.
In the Museum’s Armory, see excellent examples of historic weaponry, dating from 1750 to the twentieth century, with uses that ranged from military to more personal applications such as hunting and dueling.
In the Lowcountry History Hall, see materials relating to the Native Americans who first inhabited the Lowcountry and the African American and European settlers who transformed the region into an agricultural empire.
In the Natural History gallery you will see an extraordinary array of birds, reptiles and mammals that have called the South Carolina Lowcountry home since prehistory, including contributions from noted naturalists.