IF BOOKS ARE HUMANITY IN PRINT, museums are humanity on display. Here reside beauty, curiosity, ingenuity, education, inspiration, hard realities, comforting truths, entertainment, a sense of wonder and community.
Museums, together with travel, are where we go to expand our view of the world and to see ourselves with heightened clarity.
As an avid traveler, I’ve had the privilege to explore many of the world’s great museums. I’ve also had the privilege to live in one, Charleston itself.
Not to imply things musty, decayed or mired in the past. Not anymore. This open-air museum lives. Vibrantly.
Charleston is pretty sprightly for a city celebrating its 350th birthday. It brims with art and artifacts, many of which bear the distinction of being occupied. Walk around almost any corner, and there is history.
Along with its uncommonly lengthy list of art galleries, the Holy City is home to a remarkable array of museums, covering history, natural history, art, science, grand homes and unexpected specialties.
No city on earth can touch Paris for the sheer number of its museums (297 at last count, compared to 140 in New York, according to the World Cities Culture Forum). But for a comparatively small urban area, Charleston takes a back seat to no one.
Few cities’ historic districts exhibit so many venerable architectural styles: Colonial, Georgian, Federal, Classic Revival, Gothic Revival, Italianate, Victorian and art deco, or have so many homes on the National Register of Historic Places. A stroll South of Broad affords the pedestrian anything but pedestrian sights. It’s a veritable catalog of architecture and the decorative arts.
Charleston’s renowned Museum Mile corridor extends along Meeting Street, beginning with the granddaddy of them all, the Charleston Museum, and culminating at the Nathaniel Russell House.
The city also offers the Gibbes Museum of Art, the S.C. Historical Society Museum, the Karpeles Manuscript Museum, the Confederate Museum, the Citadel Museum, Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry, the Hunley Submarine and Interactive Museum, Old Slave Mart Museum, the museum of the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture, the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History, North Charleston Fire Museum, the Postal Museum, and the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon. These are soon to be joined by the International African American Museum, slated to open late next year.
Mount Pleasant boasts the Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum as well as the Sweetgrass Basket Pavilion, a cultural arts exhibit that is a principal stop along the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.
Then there are the various plantation house museums, such as those at Middleton Place and Drayton Hall. Of course, there is also Fort Sumter National Monument in Charleston Harbor.
Engagement with a city’s museums can move beyond the cultural sector and be utilized by other institutions, including political ones. Museums are not simply repositories of static displays. Artifacts have resonance, and most museums embrace digital technologies while offering educational and creative programs that benefit the community in manifest ways.
Ideally, cultural institutions like museums are where a city’s diverse residents convene to explore their differences and similarities, share perspectives and, hopefully, find common ground. Too much of our political rhetoric focuses on the differences between cultures, those differences that divide us. At their best, museums shine a light on differences worth celebrating, the ones that enrich us.
“What makes Charleston distinctive is not only the incredibly well-preserved buildings, but the people who live and work here,” says Kristopher King, executive director of the Preservation Society of Charleston. “Our preservation work focuses on the character and livability. We have great neighborhoods and vibrant commercial districts, and that is due to a very concerned effort to ensure Charleston remains an even better place to live than visit.”*
Bill Thompson covers the arts, film and design.