At crossroads, Charleston Museum assesses legacy, opportunities
There was something symbolic about the transformation of the courtyard. What used to be sand with some crape myrtles clustered at one side has become a terraced public space paved with broad flat stones and bricks, each myrtle now wrapped by a wooden bench.
In the collection
The Charleston Museum, founded in 1773, houses collections of silver, textiles, Revolutionary War and Civil War artifacts, natural history, Colonial period objects and even a miscellany of pieces from around the world.
Some favorite items at the museum include:
A remarkably well-preserved cartridge box and bayonet frog of the Royal Artillery (1775-76).
An axe head forged between 1675 and 1685, found in the Summerville area.
Francis Marion’s decanter case and chair.
The table and chairs used when the Articles of Secession were signed.
The Confederate uniform coat and shirt of James Wiley Gibson, featuring the hole from a sniper’s fatal bullet strike in the left breast.
The wooden prosthetic hand used by Col. Peter C. Gaillard.
A sperm whale’s lower jaw.
A plaster cast of Ramses (the original is at the British Museum).
A Egyptian mummy from the Ptolemaic period.
George Gershwin’s piano.
Thanks to the $300,000 renovation project at the Charleston Museum, the courtyard now resembles a small amphitheater or landscaped city park.
It invites picnickers to perch on the seats or steps, children to cluster and play, patrons to step outside for a breath of fresh air.
It also sets the stage for the museum’s future, says Carl Borick, who will assume the directorship next month, after John Brumgardt retires.
The museum at Meeting and John streets has been going about its business for a long time.
Three days a week school groups visit. “I love that sound in the lobby,” Borick said. “To me, that’s the sound of our mission.”
In 2010, the new textile gallery was installed. It compliments several noteworthy museum collections and displays, including Charleston silver, archaeological pieces dating to Colonial times, natural history objects, a wall of guns, Revolutionary War and Civil War items, a description of plantation life and rice-growing, historic musical instruments and even an Egyptian mummy.
The exhibits are informed by scholarship, especially the work of in-house researchers such as Martha Zierden, curator of historical archaeology.
In the early 1980s, the board decided the focus should be entirely on South Carolina. Under the auspices of Brumgardt, the museum improved its holdings, exhibitions, scholarly publications and education programs.
The nonprofit museum employs 25 full-time and 30 part-time staffers and operates in a building co-owned by the county (two-thirds) and city (one-third). The landlords donate the rent, and the museum also receives some operating funds generated by the city’s accommodation tax.
Its annual budget is about $2 million, Borick said, and it has an endowment of about $7 million, from which it draws about 5 percent a year, an amount that constitutes 12 percent of the budget.
Architecturally, the building is not a favorite among many Charlestonians, but it’s an improvement over the old space once located at Rutledge Avenue and Calhoun Street. That structure was not climate-controlled, Borick said. It leaked. It had no HVAC system. The musty museum smell that some patrons have said they miss was actually the odor of rot, he said.
The old museum burned down in October 1981, shortly after its contents were moved to the current location. Four columns that once held up the curved pediment of the neo-classical structure stand in Cannon Park as a reminder.
The new building is something of an obstacle, though, and has presented Brumgardt with challenges. It’s big, dark and bulky and tends to emit a forbidding aura. Brumgardt said he’s had to find other ways to make the place inviting and work especially hard to convey the importance of the collection.
“It doesn’t make sense to me to not visit the museum because you don’t like the building,” he said, betraying a note of impatience.
After visitors explore the galleries, it is common to hear them express surprise at the riches they’ve seen, he said.
His goal, then, has been to reset expectations, to make it better known that the Charleston Museum contains a wealth of important history expressed in its displays and interpretation.
The other big challenge was logistical. Typically, a museum building is designed with mission, collections and programming in mind. This was not the case with the Charleston Museum. It was finished in 1980, but no one had figured out what to do with the collection, Brumgardt said.
So when he arrived in 1984, Brumgardt’s first task was to create an exhibition plan. Other priorities became quickly evident: He would have to improve the condition of the collection and displays; he would have to oversee a significant fundraising campaign; and he would have to set up a management plan for four properties owned by the institution: the Joseph Manigault House, Heyward-Washington House, Aiken-Rhett House and the Dill Plantation Wildlife Sanctuary on James Island.
The properties were fixed up, and the Aiken-Rhett House was transferred to the Historic Charleston Foundation (the organization to which the property originally had been willed).
A Dinomation exhibit in the 1980s, featuring hydraulically animated dinosaurs, drew some crowds and boosted revenues, Brumgardt said. Several subsequent special exhibits helped raise the profile of the museum: one on the Siege of Charleston, one about World War II, another (the 220th anniversary show in 1998) called “Queen and Commoners of Egypt’s New Kingdom,” in partnership with the British Museum, and others.
But big, temporary exhibitions can be overrated, he said. They might draw crowds, they might not; in any case, they can be expensive.
So Brumgardt decided to focus on boosting the presentation of the museum’s collections.
Fine examples of Charleston silver came out of storage in the mid-1980s. Textiles went on display. The natural and social history of the Lowcountry was emphasized. New archaeological objects, excavated in and around the tri-county metropolitan area, got showcased.
After Hurricane Hugo hit in 1989, it became possible to get recovery money and improve the museum further, Brumgardt said. He began to cull the displays, removing pieces that didn’t seem to fit the mission or whose quality was second-rate, in a process called deaccessioning. And the education programming was boosted as museum staff increasingly worked with local (and not so local) schools.
In the late 1980s, the museum received accreditation from the American Alliance of Museums, and again in 2000 and 2011. (Brumgardt and now Borick, too, are certified accreditors who work with other museums.)
In short, Brumgardt transformed the institution into a modern museum. That’s his legacy.
Stephanie Thomas, education coordinator, said the museum offers 22 different student programs that coincide with public school standards, hosts numerous classes and home-schooled kids every week and, with help from a team of volunteers, arranges visits to area schools.
“The biggest expense of field trips is the buses,” Thomas said. “If schools can’t come here, we go to them.”
Summer camps are conducted at the Dill Sanctuary. And Thomas organizes adult workshops that help teachers earn recertification points.
Last month was especially busy: nearly 2,000 students were served. And 2013 so far has seen a 12 percent increase in visitors, Borick said. The museum is on track to host about 120,000 patrons this year.
Recently, Thomas and Borick secured city tour guide licenses, allowing them to extend the museum’s reach into surrounding neighborhoods.
Board president John Rashford said the museum’s emphasis on education includes college-level activities.
When Rashford joined the faculty at the College of Charleston about 30 years ago, the school was starting an anthropology program, and the museum was very generous, assisting the effort by providing archaeologists and internship opportunities.
He said the museum benefited from a dedicated staff and committed board members. The recently finished courtyard is a good example of the museum’s stability and success.
“I think it’s going to open up the museum in new ways,” Rashford said.
But two things impressed Rashford most, he said. The recessions of 2001 and 2008 hit tourism hard, and by extension museums. Fewer patrons came through the door, and financial holdings took significant hits. Yet the Charleston Museum pulled through, thanks to the “extraordinary skill” of Brumgardt and the board.
And then there was the creation of the Museum Mile alliance, the brainchild of Brumgardt. Museum Mile is a stretch of downtown Charleston, mostly along Meeting Street, that encompasses 35 museums, historic sites and churches and related points of interest.
Museum Mile is an initiative started in 2008 that mostly requires only a bit of marketing muscle, Brumgardt said. Combination ticket packages are sold through the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The alliance has boosted visitation among participating institutions, Brumgardt said.
Borick is thinking about what to do next, and first on his list is to find a curator of natural history and reconceive the large gallery full of animals and other items from the natural world.
“I think there’s a lot we can do with that from an interpretive standpoint,” he said.
Other items on his agenda include efforts to become more community-oriented, to develop new programming, to foster more collaboration with other institutions and to improve the ways the museum is promoted, he said. “I don’t want people to be surprised.”
Rashford said the museum’s managers were keeping their eyes on the future while adhering to the mission.
“It’s definitely not an institution that’s just running on tradition, if you know what I mean,” Rashford said. “There is a lot of enthusiasm to move forward.”