Widely acknowledged as the oldest museum in the country, the Charleston Museum was founded in 1773, before the American Revolution officially started. It was the same year that the Boston Tea Party was held at that city's Griffin's Wharf, where political protesters threw hundreds of tea-filled chests into the harbor as part of their taxation-without-representation demonstration.
The nonprofit museum is said to have been inspired by the British Museum and was established by the Charleston Library Society. Organizers began cultivating various collections, with most items focused on the South Carolina Lowcountry's natural history and its culture.
With its downtown location at 360 Meeting Street, the Charleston Museum is just a few blocks from the city's bustling port and is open year-round. The museum complex includes two historic houses that are open for tours; a combination of museum and house tour tickets are available.
The museum features several themed galleries that hold permanent collections, and two exhibits are on view in 2022. “Becoming Americans: Charleston in the Revolution” chronicles the city's role in the American Revolution and the 100-plus military engagements that happened in the Charleston area, including the famous Battle of Sullivan's Island in 1776, considered the colonists' first decisive victory over the British Royal Navy.
In the exhibit “City Under Siege: Charleston in the Civil War,” artifacts and display panels illustrate the city's role in the Civil War. Weaponry, such as artillery shells, swords, rifles, and pistols, along with the personal effects of soldiers and civilians, are on display. A highlight of this exhibit is the table and chairs that were used when delegates of the state's Secession Convention drafted South Carolina's Ordinance of Secession in 1860.
Charleston Museum Features Several Permanent Collections
The Charleston Museum's major permanent collections showcase fine art, geology, pottery, ornithology, slave badges and plantations, weaponry, natural history, and the archeology of South Carolina, among others.
In the Charleston Museum's Slave Badge Collection, visitors can see the copper badges that enslaved people were forced to wear. According to the museum's records, slave owners were required to obtain a badge from the city to be worn by any slave who was sent to work outside of the slave owner's property. Another city rule forced freed slaves 15 and older to wear a Freedman's badge.
The museum's weaponry collection shows hunting, sporting, and military items from the early 17th to the mid-20th century. The Photograph Collection has some 35,000 pictures of Charleston's streets and shoreline, including those showing the post-Civil War devastation and the extreme damage caused by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Local judges, clergy, and prominent women of Charleston are featured in paintings and portraits found in the museum's Fine Art Collection, with works from the 18th century to the early 20th century.
Museum visitors can see the clothing and accessories of 18th-century Charleston residents in the Costume Collection, which shows a wide range of garments, including elegant dresses and gowns, military uniforms, the bathing suits of the day, plus handbags, shoes, and hats.
In the museum's Lowcountry History Hall, exhibits range from Native American artifacts to the tools that enslaved people used as they worked on the region's plantations. Another gallery, titled Early Days, houses items that residents of the Charleston area obtained during travels across the globe and then donated to the museum. These include an Egyptian mummy and mummy case, Roman and Greek artifacts, and even animal specimens.
Historic House Tours Can Be Part Of A Museum Visit
Visitors to the Charleston Museum can tour two historic houses, the Joseph Manigault House, also known as Charleston's Huguenot House and located next to the museum, and the Heyward-Washington House, situated nearby at 87 Church Street.
The Heyward-Washington House, which dates from 1772, was the home of Thomas Heyward Jr., a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The residence also housed George Washington when he visited the city of Charleston in 1791.
The grand, antebellum Joseph Manigault House was built in 1803 for the Manigault family, who made their fortune from rice plantations worked by enslaved African Americans. According to the museum, Joseph Manigault inherited several plantations from his grandfather in 1788, along with some 200 slaves. The house was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1973.
The property includes a period garden, and interpretive signs point out smaller historic buildings on the site, including the kitchen, the stable, and the slave quarters.
Adult admission to the Charleston Museum is $12. With a tour of one historic house, it's $18; with both historic houses, the cost is $25. Visitors can take home a souvenir of their visit to the oldest museum in the country. The Charleston Museum store sells copies of historical photos of the city, 18th-century maps of the Lowcountry and Charleston harbor, porcelain items, puzzles, and more.