America’s First Museum: The Charleston Museum

Founded in 1773 on the eve of American independence, this South Carolina museum features natural wonders like the rattlesnake, which so fascinated early European explorers; shells and pottery shards from an on-going archaeological dig that reveal the lost truths of rural slave life; the Civil War journal of the Ft. Sumter soldiers; Charleston-made silver and furniture; and the city’s re-emergence as a Southern cultural and tourist center. Historic Charleston homes owned by the museum offer glimpses into the lives of prominent early citizens.
THE EVERYDAY AND THE EXOTIC
The Charleston Museum preserves and interprets objects that represent the cultural and natural history of the South Carolina low country. But its collections also include exotic finds: like this Hawaiian chief’s helmet. Wherever British and other foreign ships sailed, they found natural and cultural “curiosities” to bring back to Charleston.
CHARLESTON STYLE EVIDENCED IN FINE FURNITURE
Charleston was a leader in furniture manufacturing and its proximity to the West Indies made it easy to import exotic woods, which furniture makers used lavishly. Many examples are in the museum’s valuable collection of Charleston-made furniture.
SLAVE TAX BADGES
The museum’s collection of “slave tax badges” shows another dimension of the bondage system: the urban slave who could be hired out as a mechanic…a carpenter…a porter, or simply a servant. But only if the master registered the slave with the city treasurer by paying a tax.
LIFE IN CHARLESTON
Images of many Charleston residents provide a vivid window into their lives. Photos by amateur photographers go beyond the typical formal portraits and tell a story of every day life in the city.
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