America’s first museum is celebrating the extraordinary milestone of turning 250 in 2023. The Charleston Museum’s age is impressive, but perhaps even more so are its offerings. It is more than just home to an abundance of artifacts. Special workshops in sweetgrass basket weaving, indigo dying and more are also part of the museum’s focus and take place on a continual basis. There is no shortage of diverse opportunities for knowledge-seekers either living in or visiting the Lowcountry.
Susan McKellar, the museum’s chief of operations, said, “We also annually host a special children’s event to celebrate the end of the school year, called ‘Nighttime at The Museum,’ with a scavenger hunt using flashlights so children can explore the museum and discover fun activities stationed throughout the galleries. Parents are always asking us to do an adult version of it.”
That will finally happen soon, along with several other special events planned for the second week of January to kick off the year-long celebration. As part of the museum’s birthday tribute, a commemorative book, “The Charleston Museum: America’s First Museum,” was recently published by the University of South Carolina Press. The hard cover coffee table book includes beautiful photos of many of the objects in the permanent collection.
The Charleston Museum has something for everyone— archaeology, natural history, Revolutionary and Civil War history, arts, weaponry, historic textiles and more. Then there’s Kidstory, a hands-on exhibit for the youngest explorers. Finally, the museum’s two historic houses, the Joseph Manigault House and the Heyward-Washington House, are huge attractions. The Dill Sanctuary on James Island is also associated with the museum and allows visitors even more insight into local history and culture.
The museum’s collection spans 4.6 billion years of history. With such an extensive inventory, a special year-long exhibit entitled “America’s First Museum: 250 years of Collecting, Preserving and Educating” will showcase a “best of,” pulling from all collections. Some of the less-seen objects will be displayed, including a dress and shoes worn by Eliza Lucas Pinckney.
McKellar explained, “Survival of clothing from the 18th century is somewhat rare. This dress is very fragile, so it will be laid flat rather than mounted on a mannequin and will be on exhibit for less than two months, which follows the recommendation of the conservator.”
When the Charleston Museum was founded in 1773, items were collected from around the world. However, the mission changed in the 1980s to tell a more localized story. The special year-long exhibit will include some of the museum’s earlier acquisitions, including Japanese Samurai armor, objects from ancient Rome and a grass helmet from the Sandwich Islands, now Hawaii.
The celebration kicks off on January 12 with guest speaker Anthea M. Hartig, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. A reception will follow. The adult version of “Nighttime at The Museum” will be the next night, featuring an open bar and food. Guests are welcome to come dressed as their favorite character from history— or even as an exotic animal. A family day is planned for Saturday.
Here’s to wishes for a happy birthday for the Charleston Museum. If you haven’t visited lately, now is the time.
By Mary Coy