Charleston is home to many firsts, including “America’s First Museum.”
Established in 1773, The Charleston Museum will be commemorating its 250th anniversary this week, with today being its official anniversary date. We thought we’d celebrate by throwing it back to how it all began.
Paving the way
The Charleston Library Society was founded on December 28, 1748, when a group of 19 men came together to collect books and other publications from Great Britain.
The society’s mission worked to promote discussion on its abundant collection of books, historic manuscripts, archival material, and programs for members, the Lowcountry community, and scholars. Subjects included ethics, government and politics, and science and literature.
The Charleston Library Society then founded America’s first museum, now known as The Charleston Museum, on January 12, 1773, to examine the “natural history” of South Carolina.
Early collections and associated records were destroyed by a fire in 1778, though collecting began again by the 1790s.
Location, location, location
The museum and its collections were said to lack permanency and moved to various locations within the city, including Chalmers, Broad, and Church streets, and the grounds of the Medical College, now recognized as MUSC.
In 1852, the collection was acquired by the College of Charleston and the museum was opened on the third floor of CofC’s Randolph Hall. Francis Holmes became its new curator. That same year, Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz claimed the museum’s collections to be among the finest in America.
The museum transitions
During the Civil War, the museum’s operations were temporarily suspended and Francis Holmes relocated some of the collections to Edgefield, SC — a portion of those left behind were destroyed.
A new curator would then be elected in 1873: Gabriel Manigault. Gabriel worked to expand the collections, including the acquisition of pieces you may still recognize today, like the North Atlantic right whale and the Egyptian mummy.
In 1903, CofC faculty member Paul Rea was elected curator and the museum’s first official director following Gabriel’s death. Paul helped move the collection to Thomson Auditorium on Rutledge Avenue in 1907.
The museum began identifying as The Charleston Museum in 1915 when the South Carolina Secretary of State issued a charter for its incorporation.
An influential leader
Did you know The Charleston Museum is home to the first woman in the US to direct a publicly supported museum?
Brought on by Paul Rea, Laura Bragg worked to expand education programs for the museum, including Bragg Boxes, while also assisting in the acquisition of the Heyward-Washington House. Laura would become the museum’s director in 1920.
After years of transition, the museum finally found a permanent home for its research facilities, collections, and archives at 360 Meeting St. in 1980. This location has served as its home for the past 43 years.
Join in on the festivities
To honor this milestone, the museum is hosting celebrations tomorrow through Sunday. Bonus: We’ve also included the scoop on a year-long exhibit to keep the party going after this weekend.
Here’s what’s happening:
- 250th Birthday Party | Saturday, Jan. 14 | 9 a.m.-12 p.m. | The Charleston Museum, 360 Meeting St., Charleston | Free with admission | Embark on a birthday-themed scavenger hunt, explore history-focused crafts and activities, and decorate your own cupcake — children 12 and under are free with a paid adult.
- America’s First Museum: 250 Years of Collecting, Preserving and Educating, Part 1 | Wednesday, Jan. 12-Sunday, June 4 | 9 a.m.-5 p.m. | The Charleston Museum, 360 Meeting St., Charleston | Free with admission | The Charleston Museum is commemorating two and a half centuries since its founding with this year-long exhibit featuring objects from ancient Rome, Japanese Samurai armor, and Colonial dress.
Click here for a full list of events at the museum.