I’ve been in the mood lately to snoop around behind the scenes at different places to see their inner workings. The thought occurred to me to do the same at the Charleston Museum. Goodness knows, I thought, what they must have tucked away in storage rooms and so forth that no one ever gets to see.
Well, I called one person who spoke to another who finally got me connected with J. Grahame Long, curator of history at the museum, who made the proper arrangements. And let me say, it was a remarkable experience.
When the old museum located in Cannon Park burned down in the fall of 1981, inventory had thankfully already been transferred to the new building on the northeast corner of Meeting and John streets, a building that had then, as it does now, its architectural critics.
It’s just a big boxy brick thing, people say. In the literal sense, that’s probably true, but it’s also an indestructible, fireproof fortress that will be around longer than the pyramids at Giza if no one fools with it.
The building sailed through Hurricane Hugo instead of getting blown away and is big enough, from what I can tell, to store way more at any given moment than what’s on display.
The primary storage area is tiered and packed to the rafters with everything imaginable, although the museum is currently trying to acquire only items that mesh with its Charleston- and South Carolina-oriented mission statement. Temperature and humidity are strictly controlled.
No longer with us
One of the first areas I was taken through concerned ornithology, and the first species shown me was the beloved Carolina parakeet, extinct now for about a century. There were several lying there quietly, a few of them so well-preserved and vibrant in color that one would almost expect them to wake up and fly away.
It’s like seeing the colors of the game fish known as dolphin for the first time (or mahi mahi) — brilliant and shiny. Examining the specimens makes it hard to believe that such beautiful, social and chatty creatures (or so has been written) once populated the area and were killed off to support the millinery industry or because they were perceived as a nuisance to farmers.
Interestingly, one of the birds is on display in the main part of the museum. Next to the display are copies of a verbal and artistic characterization by famed English naturalist Mark Catesby (1682-1749), who had the first published account of the flora and fauna of North America.
Whereas I like Catesby, my impression was that he missed the mark (so to speak) on the artistic rendering and made the subject look like one of those unfortunate ladies who sat for a portrait by Jeremiah Theus.
Theus, a Swiss-born American painter (1716-1774), was active mostly around Charleston, where his reputation was unrivaled. His paintings are worth a fortune and yet he must have had a thing against women, because most of his female subjects look ghastly — as does Catesby’s parakeet — all stiff and double-chinned. The only thing the parakeet is missing to absolutely nail down the comparison is a natty little moustache, the hint of which Theus seems to bestow upon all his ladies.
Anyway, I digress. Back to the storage room. The next drawer over contains stellar examples of the passenger pigeon, another species gone now for about a century. This was a lovely bird that might be confused with the mourning dove based on coloring, although it was much larger with very graceful contours, long tail feathers and a telltale, subtle patch of iridescent reddish purple (fuchsia? — hate that word) on the back of the neck that doves lack.
It’s very sobering and a reminder of man’s natural tendency toward overindulgence contemplating a bird that once numbered in the billions now gone forever (unless genetic engineering can bring it back). “The air was literally filled with pigeons,” wrote J.J. Audubon on one of his expeditions. “The light of noon day was obscured as by an eclipse.”
In this part of the storage area, there are all types of skins, pelts, fossils, eggs, skeletons — you name it, it’s there. In an adjoining room is a massive collection of marine animals and amphibians stored in various flammable liquids (including rum, from way back in the day).
Due to the nature of these liquids, fire is of particular concern. If an alarm should go off, one has about 30 seconds to get out of that room before automatic doors shut and — if the situation warrants it — a substance is released from pipes that sucks all the oxygen out of the air, extinguishing everything, including the hapless person(s) trapped inside.
The confines of space limit what I can say about the museum, but suffice to say that its collection of antique furniture (particularly Charleston pieces) is first-rate, as are the fabrics, silver, period uniforms and firearms, porcelains, representative technologies and so forth, many of which date back to the Colonial era. The Civil-War-era artifacts are outstanding. Everything is neatly archived, researched, documented and subject to ongoing scholarly interpretation.
With this type of inventory, one may be assured that making a visit every now and again will likely yield refreshing viewing opportunities and excitement for supporting a worthy cause.
Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at edwardgilbreth@ comcast.net.