Director’s Report 2020
Happy New Year to all our Museum friends. We hope that you and your families have continued to stay well throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, which has truly been an unusual period in our nation’s history. This unprecedented event has taken its toll, and we all look forward to better things in this New Year.
The economic effects of the pandemic have been particularly challenging for non-profit organizations, both locally and nationally, which have faced extreme financial stresses throughout 2020 and continue to do as we begin 2021. Despite these trying circumstances, however, the Museum has continued to accomplish its mission.
The Museum and its historic houses closed beginning March 19, 2020 due to the rapidly evolving nature of the pandemic at the time. Shortly thereafter, the City of Charleston mandated that non-essential businesses close to the public. Fortunately, the Museum was able to offer programs via Facebook Live during the shutdown, which was a great opportunity to reach our supporters, especially when many were confined to their homes. Curatorial, education, historic houses and even administrative staff gave presentations on a variety of topics, including archaeology, the Dill Sanctuary, ecology, historic textiles and the Revolutionary War, which have had over 30,000 views to date. These are still available on the Museum’s Facebook page if you are interested.
The Museum reopened on May 29 and our historic houses opened over the next two weeks. Since that time, Museum sites have operated at regular operating hours. Museum staff, led by our management team, Susan McKellar, Jennifer McCormick and Stephanie Thomas, did a tremendous job implementing cleaning and sanitizing procedures to ensure a safe environment for our guests. These protocols will remain in place for the foreseeable future.
Despite the pandemic, the Museum achieved significant progress on a variety of fronts in 2020. Thanks to facility funds provided by Charleston County and the City of Charleston, all water fountains were replaced and new wayfinding and ADA signage was installed throughout the building. We are particularly excited about the enhancements to the Courtyard entrance which has new signs and landscaping to draw people into this wonderful space. Make sure you enter through the Courtyard on your next visit!
On the curatorial front, we were pleased to welcome aboard Virginia Theerman as our new Curator of Historic Textiles. Although she joined us as the pandemic was worsening in the spring, Virginia has immersed herself in the position and is daily making new discoveries about one of our richest collections. Her first exhibit, Designers and Artisans: Made in the Lowcountry, on display in the historic textile gallery until April 25, is an intriguing look at fashions and crafted objects created locally from the eighteenth century to the present. With an excellent grasp of her field, we look forward to presenting live programs by Virginia once it is safe to do so.
In other collections news, the Museum brought in 28 accessions during 2020, which incorporated over 800 objects. Among the highlights was a fossilized wahoo tooth, which at approximately 35 million years old is the oldest representative example from this species in the natural history collection. The Museum also received a c. 1858 daybed that belonged to the Manigault family, a J.P. Sauer & Sohn semi-automatic pistol captured from a German officer in 1945 by Sgt. Legrande C. Whitney, and several objects from the estate of Anne Fox, who was the longtime house administrator for the Joseph Manigault House, including her wedding photos taken in Charleston during the Second World War. We are so grateful to all those who donated to the Museum’s collections in the past year, especially during such a difficult time.
2020 was the centennial anniversary of Laura Bragg being named Director of The Charleston Museum, the Museum’s first female director and a pioneer of our public programming. To mark the occasion, we presented a special exhibition in the lobby, Laura Bragg: Librarian, Educator & Director of The Charleston Museum and the boardroom was officially designated the Laura Bragg Boardroom in her honor. Although many remember Milby Burton, Bragg was responsible for the Museum’s direct involvement in Charleston’s preservation movement, the acquisition of the Heyward-Washington House, and the earliest collecting of Edgefield pottery. We are pleased that she will now be permanently recognized via the Museum Boardroom.
At the Dill Sanctuary, the Museum undertook a major project to restore the rip rap revetment that protects Battery Pringle from tidal erosion. First installed in 1995 through the cooperation of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, this stone barrier was impacted by Hurricane Irma in September 2017. The Museum received a grant through the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, administered by the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, which covered much of the cost to restore it. Completed in November, the new rip rap will ensure that this important historic resource is properly protected from further erosion for decades to come.
Although the Museum has maintained regular operating hours since mid-June, visitation in 2020 was down substantially due to the pandemic. Taking into account school groups and adult group tour visits, attendance was roughly 44% of the total for 2019. Given that associated admissions revenue comprises 50% of the Museum’s annual revenues, this has had a significant impact on the budget. Some of this was offset by the generosity of our members, regular donors, and other supporters. The 2020 annual appeal was the most successful in over twenty years. The E. Milby Burton Trust for Historic Houses, meanwhile, made a wonderful gift of $15,000 to assist with much-needed annual maintenance work at the Heyward-Washington and Joseph Manigault Houses. Thanks to your generosity, contributions to support Museum operations have tripled from 2019 to 2020.
Still, we expect lower visitation in the coming months until Covid-19 vaccines become more widely available. Consequently, the Museum needs your help more than ever. We ask for your continued generous financial assistance through membership and donations. Unquestionably, it has been through the assistance of people like you that the Museum has been able to thrive for nearly two and a half centuries, and, with you, it will continue to do so. May 2021 be a happy and healthy year for all of you, and we look forward to a time when we can see you at the Museum.