Pieces of history

Long is responsible for the museum’s weapons, furniture, silver and other collections.

Paul Zoeller

Museums were favorite destinations for Grahame Long as he grew up. When he was a boy, his parents frequently took him to visit ones all along the Eastern Seaboard.

He was fascinated by the things he saw exhibited in museums. The same held true for aquariums and zoos.

It was not unusual for Long’s mother to drop him off at the Charlotte Nature Museum, run errands and return to pick him up later. And by the time he was 10, he had a pretty good idea how museums worked. He also felt comfortable with the people who worked in them. They were kindred souls.

“Strangely enough, history was the only thing I was good at,” Long says.

So it’s no surprise that he ended up working in the museum field. Before working at the Charleston Museum, he was education coordinator at the Old Exchange.

When Long began working as assistant curator of history for the museum 13 years ago, his first project involved recording into an electronic data base its weapons collection, including cavalry sabers, swords, artillery bombs and cannons.

While he was not particularly drawn to such objects, one small part of the collection made a disproportionate impact on him, attracting and holding his attention for years.

“The thing that kept bothering me was the dueling pistols,” says Long, now curator of history at the museum and chairman of its exhibits production committee.

He oversees preservation of the silver, furniture, ceramics, jewels and medical equipment collections as well as weapons. Those and all other items accepted by the museum help document Charleston’s natural and cultural history.

“I found myself looking at them many times,” he says of the dueling pistols. “I would literally stare down the barrel of them. I wondered how anyone could let an argument spiral out of control to that point.”

Over the years, Long has kept detailed notes of stories involving dueling pistols and the research they inspired him to conduct, he says. When he was almost 40, his wife, Lissa, suggested it might be time for him to write a book on dueling.

So he did. “Dueling in Charleston: Violence Refined in the Holy City” was published by The History Press in 2012.

Some of the most memorable stories in the book include 18th-century ones in which a gentleman found it necessary to defend his family’s honor.

They also include 19th-century stories that are hardest to make sense of, such as a duel involving best friends at college in which one killed the other over a plate of fish.

Just working in the museum is inspirational, Long says.

“It’s a candy store for me,” he says. “I curate approximately 50,000 individual objects, and out of those, the silver and furniture collections are pretty much tied for the largest.

“As for the most famous, we have several which get a lot of attention on a national and international scale, but the Charleston-made Holmes-Edwards library bookcase is one piece we are world-renowned for (having).”

Charleston is famous as a place where many talented silversmiths practiced. There were 281 from 1680 to 1860.

Charles Cotesworth Pinckney’s Revolutionary War gorget, a piece of armor that protects the throat, was made by one of the silversmiths around 1750, Long says. The piece by John Vanall is something that attracts a lot of attention.

Not many items in the museum are shrouded in mystery, but there are some Long calls quirky, such as Charleston apothecary Dr. William H. Trott’s preserved frog.

The object almost sparked a mermaid riot in 1867, Long says. It had rained for days in Charleston, and people became frightened. A rumor spread that the rain wouldn’t stop because Trott was holding a mermaid in a jar. A large, angry crowd gathered outside Trott’s business, the rain stopped and the crowd dispersed.

Long’s favorite piece, Col. Peter C. Gaillard’s prosthetic left hand and forearm, was donated by the late Mayor Palmer Gaillard, a descendant. The colonel was wounded while defending Battery Wagner during the Civil War.

“There is a book in every collection here,” Long says.

The history collection includes everything accepted by the museum, America’s first, that is not preserved by its archives, archaeology, natural history or textiles departments.

For Long, there is no typical day on the job. He half-jokes that he spends time wandering the museum’s halls wondering what history collection items the public would be interested in seeing exhibited next.

There are times when the public is more concerned about potentially historic items they own, Long says.

“Whenever there is a new episode of ‘Antiques Roadshow,’ my phone will ring an extra 40 times,” he says.

Many people have an item they want to bring in for appraisal. “We can do our best to identify it. We cannot provide bona-fide monetary appraisals.”

Sometimes an item that a potential donor wants to donate does not fit within the museum’s collecting and preservation goals. But Long or another museum curator usually can help the potential donor to find a collection in which it does fit. When the museum accepts items, it does not promise to display them but to catalog and preserve them.

Jan Hiester, curator of textiles at the museum, says Long is an inquisitive person who is driven by his love of history.

His strong desire to preserve historical items so that others can learn about them is seen in the way he cares for the collections that are his responsibility, making sure they are stored safely and properly, she says.

While Long is passionate about researching those items in his care and working on exhibits, he also enjoys informing today’s visitors to the museum.

“He seems to love doing tours and meeting people,” Hiester says.

Reach Wevonneda Minis at 937-5705.