Exploring The Charleston Museum

I always love a great fashion exhibition, but it’s also fun to look for traces of clothing and textile history in places that are not “fashion” museums.  Because the clothes we wear and the business of making textiles and clothing is so intertwined with our lives, one can find fashion exhibited in almost any museum.  That’s especially true in places like the Carolinas where cotton production and cloth manufacture are important to the economy.

A recent visit to the Charleston Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, proved to be  full of stuff of interest to the fashion historian.  The Charleston Museum has a gallery dedicated to textiles, but the other exhibits have textile history as well.  One of the main galleries is a sort of Carolina Lowcountry timeline, starting with Native American culture, and then working its way to the present.

One thing I found to be particularly interesting in the telling of the the story of slavery is how the museum focuses on the culture of the enslaved Africans, rather than on the issue of slavery.  There are some artifacts that do make it clear that enslaved persons were considered to be property, but much of what you see is like the baskets above.  Today, many descendants of these people still make and sell these sweetgrass baskets, and so the basket weavers are a familiar sight in Charleston on the streets and in the market.  It is an object that visitors to the city can relate to, and it shows how the skill of making them dates back to slavery.

Southern museums and museum houses that date to the antebellum period (before the American Civil War) are often criticized for their glossing over of slavery.  Personally, I’ve been to a lot of museums and plantations in the South, and I’ve never had an experience where I left being shaken by how the site interpreted slavery.  This is not to be taken as a criticism of The Charleston Museum, as they only have so much space and as a general history and culture museum, perhaps the task is best left to another institution.  I will say that I could have done with fewer Civil War era guns, and more in depth coverage of human issues.

The photo at the top is of a cotton bale.  Cotton bales were large and heavy and represent a lot of human labor.  They also have on display a cotton gin (or engine), the machine that allowed cotton production to flourish, and with it, slavery.

Of course, the big event in Charleston was the Civil War, and in particular, the bombardment of Fort Sumter.  There is a large section on the war and lots of guns.  Whoever thinks the South was short on arms during the war has never visited a Southern museum.  There are enough surviving Civil War rifles scattered across the South to arm General Lee’s army.

But as we know, history is not just the battles fought.  History gets interesting when we start to see events as happening to people.  And the Charleston Museum does an excellent job of presenting life along with the battles.

Alongside the guns and uniforms, you will also see the clothing of women and children.

There are also displays of the tools used in textile and clothing making in the home and workshop, though the floating flax wheel (upper left) and yarn winder (upper right) are a bit odd.

Click to enlarge

I loved these little sewing accouterments, especially the pincushion encased in a carved walnut shell.

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My favorite object has to be this peddler’s trunk.  I can only imagine how exciting it must have been for an isolated farm family when a traveling salesman showed up at their door with this trunk of treasures.

Another section of the museum is a throw-back to the early days of its history.  The Charleston Museum was founded in 1773 and opened to the public in 1824. In those days museums were more like cabinets of curiosity than the well organized and mission statemented institutions of today.  As such, many of the oldest artifacts have nothing at all to do with the history, culture, or natural history of the region.

This mummy was acquired in 1893 by museum director and curator Gabriel Manigault.  The sarcophagus was added in the 1920s.  These are the sort of miscellaneous objects that collectors prized.  The interesting thing about this exhibit is that it is telling the history of the museum more than it is telling about the Charleston region.


There is also a children’s area in the museum, with lots of hands-on activities, but also with artifacts that tell about the lives of children in Charleston.

There is also a stuffed polar bear, but I somehow neglected to get a photo.  What do polar bears have to do with South Carolina?  Absolutely nothing.



Filed under Museums

12 responses to “Exploring The Charleston Museum

  1. I also love to find evidence of textiles in unlikely places. And even though I don’t live on an isolated farm, I would be thrilled if someone showed up with that beautiful trunk at my door!


  2. Appreciate very much your thoughtful comments on museums in the South, and this one. (Polar bear?) Your photos are memorable!


  3. I love the peddler’s trunk. I notice that is contains a typewriter ribbon. I often think about how precious sewing needles must have been — and how easily lost — for families moving west.


  4. Jacq Staubs

    The baskets you are showing are sweet grass baskets-descendants of the former slaves inherited the skill and art and made them. Going thru South Carolina -roadside years ago they sold them . On my way thru to Florida years ago we stopped and purchased all they had for resale in our shop. I still have one -exquisitely made-with a dome lid/top. They really belong in a museum .The hand craft is precise and just beautiful! I sincerely hope someone there has preserved them for history. The craftsmen mostly women were communicating in their native African tongue.


    • Jacq, the roadside stands are still there on highway 17 north of Charleston. Back in the 1980s my mother stopped at one stand and bought a basket for me. I remember that she paid $8 for it. I priced similar ones in the Charleston market recently, and to get a basket of that quality, today you’ll pay close to $100. I’m glad the makers are finally getting the price they deserve for this very skilled work.

      I bought another one about 20 years ago, and the price was still low, but the quality was not as great. I believe it must have been made by a beginning weaver. We had just gotten our Spooky puppy, and one day when I got home from work, our living room was covered in sweetgrass which Spooky had liberated from the new basket! It’s amazing how much grass they pack into those baskets. I was so relieved that he decided to destroy the newer basket, and not the lovely older one.

      The language, Gullah, can still be heard in the Charleston area.


  5. Christina

    ‘History is not just the battles fought.” This is a thought provoking post and not for the first time has taken me down another road of inquiry. I had not come across Gullah before. Is there a museum or institute in South Carolina which specifically focuses on the history of enslaved Americans? From my Canadian perspective I am curious about the relationship between the Charleston Museum and the history of those peoples? I see there is an upcoming exhibition later in the year.


  6. Susan Maresco

    Dear Lizzie–your ardent interest now becomes our delight! Thank you. The NY Times had an interesting article on Georgetown University and the sale of slaves, Sun. Apr. 17. The revelations took my breath away.


  7. THAK YOU! I sincerely thought I had not remembered the purchase and the experience clearly! I/We drove away completely mystified – and a load of this exquisite art- This was 1975- I still have my favorite! We could not understand why this artistry was not protected and in a philanthropic sense developed!?! Then… I thought about it…???!!! We sold all of the original purchase immediately! They were so sweet and naturally apprehensive -I also found another African resource for similar woven sandals I could not keep in stock-low wedged and flat flip/flop type all hand made! Again THANK YOU!


  8. It sounds like an interesting way to spend a day. I loved your second sentence. SO true! X


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