The Charleston Museum

The Charleston Museum is the oldest museum institution in the United States. “America’s First Museum” houses a large collection of historical artifacts as well as natural history and decorative arts artifacts. The museum is comprised of the main building located on 360 Meeting St. in Charleston, South Carolina along with two historic houses, the Joseph Manigault and Heyward-Washington houses, and the Dill Wildlife Sanctuary on James Island, South Carolina. The main museum building and the historical houses are open 7 days a week, barring holidays, however the Dill Sanctuary is only open for special events. Tickets range in price depending on how many sites the visitor would like to explore. Adult tickets for range from $12 for one site ticket to $25 to visit the museum and both historical houses. Children’s tickets range from $5 to $10 per site or free if the child is 2 years or younger. Parking is free on site at the museum.

The Charleston Museum was established by the Charleston Library Society in 1773. The museum along with the College of Charleston, Medical College of South Carolina, and the Elliot Society of Natural History formed a hub of scientific research in the southeastern United States prior to the Civil War. In the early years of the museum, the collection consisted primarily of minerals and animal taxidermy specimens. However, by the late 1840s elite citizens in Charleston began to realize the importance the city had to offer as a center of natural history study as more and more naturalists, such as Louis Agassiz, began to take note of the rich fossil layers in the Lowcountry. Bolstered by fossil collections of Francis S. Holmes, who would become the curator of the collection, the museum truly became a premier research facility within the College of Charleston.

The museum has changed locations and focus through its long history. Originally housed within the College of Charleston, the collection eventually became as large as to require its own facility. The museum was then moved to a vacant convention hall that was present in what is now Cannon Park. The convention hall had served many purposed prior, such as a meeting place for a Confederate reunion in 1899, a theatre from 1901 to 1903, and a temporary hospital building in 1904. The museum was housed in this building from 1907 to 1980 before the museum moved to its current location on Meeting Street. Almost a year after the move, the convention hall that had housed the museum for decades was lost in a fire, although the four pillars that once stood in the entrance way still remain. The current museum building is a modern design with all exhibit halls present as a loop on the second floor. The first floor contains the a main lobby, staff offices and education department, the gift shop, and an area for small rotating lobby exhibits typically focused on facets of the collection not explored elsewhere. The lobby area also showcases what is probably the largest object in the museum’s collection, a fully articulated right whale skeleton. This whale, collected in 1880 from the Charleston Harbor, was mounted for display by past Natural History Curator Gabriel E. Manigault and has been a prominent feature of the Museum in its previous location in Cannon Park to present day.

Although being founded as a natural history museum, through the years the museum has acquired many cultural artifacts that are now a large part of the museum’s exhibition. The first halls of the museum focus on native peoples, colonial Charleston, the Revolutionary War, and the Civil War as well as a historic textiles gallery and Charleston-made silver gallery. These halls contain a multitude of artifacts, and to go through them all would require their own article. Instead I will focus on the exhibit hall which contains artifacts over which I preside, the Bunting Natural History Gallery.

When the museum moved to its current location in 1980, museum exhibition was focused primarily on cultural and historical artifacts. The natural history hall did not have the level of development of the other halls and was more of a traditional experience. Many of the specimens on display had little relevance to an overarching narrative or even to each other. Most of the specimens on display were taxidermy mounts, which are only a fraction of the natural history collections.

The Bunting Natural Gallery, which opened September 2017, tells the story of the Lowcountry from the end of the Mesozoic (70 million years ago) to present day. The exhibit begins with an overview of Lowcountry geology along with an overview of basic biology through a simplified tree of life. Each branch ends with a representative of that animal or plant group and includes both modern and extinct specimens. The geology section discusses the three basic rock types, with a focus on sedimentary rock and the fossilization process and includes large samples of the minerals that each rock on display is composed. Some of the highlights include one of the oldest fossils on display, a sample of cyanobacteria from the Precambrian (approx. 2.2 million years old), a yellow bellied slider skeleton with the carapace opened so visitors can see the turtle’s bones within, and a pacific giant clam.

Visitors progressing through The Bunting Natural History Gallery move forward in time focusing on major geologic time periods in South Carolina’s prehistory. The first major section focuses on the end of the Age of Dinosaurs and showcases some of the few examples of dinosaurs collected from the state. Some of the highlights include teeth from the mosasaur Tylosaurus, tooth and claw fragments of the maniraptoran dinosaur Saurornitholestes, and skeletal elements of the herbivorous hadrosaurs. The Charleston Museum also houses the first dinosaur fossil ever described in the state, a toe bone collected from Darlington County, South Carolina in 1965. The next major section focuses on Oligocene (26 – 28 million years old) deposits in the Charleston area. This area contains the 18 foot long Gavialosuchus caroliensis crocodile as well as early primitive whales. Many of the organisms on display in this section are still the subject of research, with many awaiting formal description. Pelagornis sandersi, the largest bird capable of flight in the world, was discovered in Charleston and was formally described in 2014. This gigantic predator relied on ocean air currents and its 21 foot wingspan to soar over the ocean in search of prey. Another newly described species, Tupelocetus palmeri, was a primitive whale just recently published on in March 2019. This archaeocete, or ancient whale, is currently one of the largest and oldest whales collected from South Carolina.

Pelagornis Sandersi
PHOTOGRAPH BY Matthew Lewis Gibson

The final portions of the exhibit focus on the Pleistocene, or last Ice Age, as well as modern day. The Ice Age section contains many well-known fauna such as mammoths, mastodons, bison, elk, saber-toothed cats, and dire wolves as well as a full skeletal reconstruction of Eremotherium, the largest ground sloth in North America. Standing approximately 15 feet tall, this behemoth is almost always the center of attention when visitors explore the gallery. The exhibit ends with discussing early naturalists from the region and exploring modern research and conservation methods. There is also a classroom and paleontology lab area where visitors can come and see actual paleontologists excavating and preserving specimens for the collection.

Giant ground sloth
PHOTOGRAPH BY Matthew Lewis Gibson
PHOTOGRAPH BY Matthew Lewis Gibson

The Bunting Natural History Gallery is a permanent exhibit; however there are sections that routinely change. Several sections house “study drawers” and “peep holes” which see their specimens routinely swapped out. This allows visitors to continue to explore the collections and learn more about South Carolina’s rich biodiversity, both past and present.

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Matthew Lewis Gibson