The Charleston Museum has a parking lot. In this city, that's currency. It's not very large, but it is free, and that's all that matters.
So it's surprising that the Charlestonians I know don't frequent this venue as often as, say, the Gibbes. Or maybe if they did, there wouldn't be many parking spaces available. It's a Catch-22, I guess.
On a Monday morning, just an hour after the museum opens, there's plenty of room in the lot, because most people have to spend their Monday mornings doing other things. Like working, for instance. The handful of guests in the museum at this hour on this day all have an air of tourism to them: some younger couples, some older folks, a mother in a T-shirt with her little blond son.
Unlike these sightseers, I'm a VIP — as a member of the press — and I am being treated as such. Rachel Chesser, the museum's PR and events coordinator, and Jan Hiester, curator of textiles, greet me downstairs in the sunny lobby of the museum. This particular space is so well lit that you almost forget how brooding the building seems from the street, all brown and windowless. Until you go upstairs to the dark expanse of the collections, and then the inside starts to match the outside.
We head first to the textile gallery, Hiester's home turf. Installed in 2010 to show off quilts and clothing, this section of the museum changes, unlike its permanent counterpart across the way. Hiester themes its exhibits based on seasons, colors, or other features. Both women gush about the geometrically-patterned quilts on one side of the room (they teach quilting programs held at the museum), but all three of us fawn over the tiny waists of 18th-century dresses and the even tinier shoes in the couture display across the room. A long case shows off sparkling pieces from the 18th to 20th centuries, clothing collected mostly through donations since 1917, and it's hard to imagine that anyone was ever so lucky to wear such precious things. I hone in on the aesthetic charms of what is probably the World War II era, where two silky gowns in red and white steal the show.
There's a less glamorous try-on section nearby, and it is very popular; guests get a big kick out of putting on hoop skirts and taking photos on their phones, Hiester explains. Instant Facebook profile pictures. (If I was there with a friend and not two professional adults, that's probably exactly what I would have done.)
Then it's on to the silver. It's pretty but not as exciting as the dresses, so I broach the subject of going beyond exhibits and into the cavernous, restricted back area of the museum. Ever the gracious hosts, Chesser and Hiester are quickly accommodating, but don't expect the same treatment unless you're a member of the press who's writing a story on the museum.
Yes, I get to go where they keep the stuff. So much stuff, from heavy rocks and shards of glass found at archeological sites to drawers of dresses and cabinets filled with Civil War uniforms or bursting with guns. I had to resist the urge to touch everything, because everything was old and priceless. Chesser and Hiester would have judged me, or kicked me out. It's rare that the museum makes purchases. Most of the pieces have been collected from donations from Charleston families or from occasional excavations of Charleston archeaological sites (the Old City Wall, for example).
Luckily we go back to the floor before I have the chance to ruin something, and we make our way quickly through the permanent exhibit. And permanent is a good word for it. Some of the signage has the retro graphic design qualities of the '80s. Every bit of the walls is either covered in something historical or an explanation of what that something historical is. Some of the display cases are too dark to really see what's going on, due to an unfortunate technological blunder that the women hope will be handled in the next budget year.
It feels a little dated — especially when you see some of the hairstyles in the informative videos scattered throughout the exhibits — but it gets the point across: This is the history of Charleston. From the earliest signs of Native American life to that whole Civil War thing, everything you've ever needed to know about the background of this city is at this museum. I was a history major in college (granted, in a different state), and while South Carolina's past was never my forte, I was surprised to find myself nodding along to facts I'd never actually heard of. Did you know slaves in Charleston had to wear badges? Do you know what a Dave jar is? Did you know that the museum has George Washington's christening cup? Essentially, a possession that the first president of the United States touched when he was a baby? So what if it's not directly Charleston related.
Then there's all the dead animals. Lots of birds. They've got a stuffed polar bear and one tiny dinosaur skeleton, too. Those relics have less to do with the history of the city, unless Sullivan's island was really the island from LOST, and that would only account for the polar bear, not the dinosaur. We end with the final exhibit, a tribute to the past of the Charleston Museum itself. Grand statues cast from the same mold as the ones at the British Museum watch as I make my first encounter with the mummified remains of an Egyptian female. I've never seen a mummy before.
Later, after Chesser and Hiester leave me, I have some time to myself with the dresses. It's so quiet in this room that I can very clearly hear the boisterous story told by a costumed performer in a video next door in the empty KidStory section. Obviously some jerk pressed the button and walked away. OK, that jerk was me. I may be alone now as I admire the outfits, but this stuff is blowing up on the internet. Chesser, Heister, and another museum employee work together on Textile Tuesdays, an online feature immensely popular among the world of Tumblr rebloggers. They can ask for help in identifying items that way too. And that's the oddest thing about the Charleston Museum. I had never been there before last Monday, but I became well acquainted with olive green silk velvet dress months ago because of the internet. And maybe that's how the Charleston Museum will outlast us all, even if we never go there.