Morris Center mounts first Lowcountry food exhibit

West Main Street in Ridgeland.

—In a corner of the Morris Center for Lowcountry Heritage’s back room, there’s a tabletop diorama of the Honey Hill Battlefield, populated by itty-bitty Union troops, permanently advancing en masse toward the Charleston and Savannah Railroad.

When residents of the surrounding town of Ridgeland think about museums, many of them imagine exhibits like this one. Sealed off from roving hands, the static depiction of a moment that no living person remembers has to count as history. But when the brand-new museum announced it was planning to mount an exhibit with panels devoted to Hoppin’ John and hash, and a play area where children could pretend to make Frogmore stew, at least a few locals questioned the seriousness of the subject. Was there supposed to be that much overlap between this week’s shopping list and the stuff hanging on a history museum wall?

“Some people didn’t understand why we were doing it,” says Annmarie Reiley-Kay, the center’s director of programs and exhibits. “I don’t think anyone thinks it’s history, because it’s just something they did. But some of these traditions are going away.”

“Roots: The Lowdown on Lowcountry Cuisine,” which opens on Saturday, is structured as an express trip through the area’s history, with iconic dishes serving as guideposts. Each featured item was selected because it revealed something about those who shaped the region: Shrimp-and-grits, for example, might seem “passe” to coastal Carolinians accustomed to eating the dish at every wedding and awards banquet, Reiley-Key says. In the context of the exhibit, though, the dish provides a chance to delve into the topic of corn and the Native Americans who cultivated it.

“When you want to talk about all demographics, food seemed like a logical choice,” Reiley-Key says.

Community members who were initially skeptical started coming around to the concept even before the panels were shipped to the printer. “I’ve had people come in with food, saying ‘This has been cooking in a pot for 10 hours. I really want you to try this,’ ” Reiley-Key says.

If what’s happening inside the museum has moderately confounded visitors, what’s happening outside of it stands to scandalize museum professionals. The Morris Center for Lowcountry Heritage, which opened last September to a grand opening crowd of 400 people, is housed in a former Sinclair service station that’s been buffed up for its new assignment. The Spanish eclectic-style building, immediately recognizable by its intact service bay, wears a gleaming coat of white paint. The front-facing garage door, made almost wholly of glass, is spotless.

And here’s where curators get nervous. All those windows mean sunlight is beating down on the museum all day long, threatening any objects in its path. But The Morris Center has turned that potential hazard into a plus by setting up an educational “Eat It, Grow It, Study It” station along the windowed wall. In a complement to the food exhibit, schoolchildren are raising watermelon and beets.

It’s an untraditional arrangement, but The Morris Center isn’t bound by the conventions that rule most local history museums. For one thing, the center isn’t a collecting institution, which means it doesn’t have the usual inventory of apple corers and wedding dresses. “We decided we’d rather borrow,” Reiley-Key says, alluding to limited storage space, as well as the unlimited logistical hassles that accompany acquisitions.

The center also is moving at a clip that’s unheard of in museum circles: The exhibit team spent approximately three months on “Roots,” and plans to stick to a schedule of debuting a new exhibit every six months or so. At many museums, it’s common for three years to elapse between curators starting the planning process and the first visitor being admitted.

But it doesn’t take much familiarity with museum industry trends to know there’s good reason to deviate from the standard way of doing things. Small museums are closing at a rapid rate. While the problem is more acute in the United Kingdom, where one in five regional museums last year shut down at least part of its operations, towns across the U.S. are also surrendering their creaky, cluttered historical societies.

Still, Reiley-Key doesn’t think that means people want to confine their learning to the digital sphere.

“People still want a physical space,” she says. “They want to be connected.”

Danny Morris, a builder and developer, was the Ridgeland booster who made The Morris Center possible. A native of nearby Tillman, Morris died in 2005 at the age of 53. He’d never married or had children, so a good portion of the profits he’d made through projects that anticipated the importance of the I-95 corridor was designated for a foundation. The Morris Foundation Trust funded the museum’s creation.

Money from the trust also will allow the center to expand over the coming years: Immediate plans call for a commercial kitchen, event pavilion and adjacent cafe. Growth already is occurring on a much smaller scale: When the museum opened, the space reserved for programs was furnished with a lectern and 32 seats. Reiley-Key recently had to order more chairs.

Reiley-Key also can measure enthusiasm for the museum’s activities through temporary donations. The upcoming food exhibit will include a 1960 meat grinder, lent by a woman whose husband was an avid hunter. The appliance didn’t see any meat other than venison for half a century.

While the exhibit consists primarily of panels, they’re being supplemented by a pair of video monitors, one of which will screen Stan Woodward’s hash documentary on a nonstop loop, and select objects such as a 19th-century waffle maker used to make rice waffles.

“So this shows why Carolina gold rice was important,” Reiley-Key says. “Words can sometimes be too lengthy and complicated.”

Other elements of the exhibit will be adapted from the inaugural exhibit, which centered on the history of U.S. 17. The museum strives to present a multifaceted interpretation of the past, a stance that Reiley-Key knew could pose problems when discussing the advent of I-95, since the highway sucked traffic out of Ridgeland. “You need it for tourists,” she says. “You have to have it for hurricanes.”

On a lighter note, the exhibit included an area for visitors to stage selfies: It’s getting a new set of props for the food exhibit, including cookware and bib overalls. And the room was hung with clotheslines so visitors could pin up postcards on which they’d written roadside memories. For “Roots,” the prompt is “Tell Your Own Recipe.”

As Reiley-Key says, “a lot of people want their own histories told.”