Charleston Museum Director Carl Borick can’t show me everything, although I can see he’s itching to. And one can only imagine how he could possibly choose, which ancient and not-so-ancient memories to share with an outsider, someone who does not breathe the dusty, storied air everyday. There’s the grass helmet from the Sandwich Islands; the Confederate battle flag dotted with blood; the necessary chair outfitted, ostensibly, like any other 19th century chair, but with a chamber pot tucked neatly beneath the seat; the giant sloth cast looming above glass cases containing the real, freakily large bones discovered on Johns Island. It’s another world, and then another, and yet another. Borick will lead visitors through these worlds during an hour-long tour Thurs. June 21, pointing out his top 10 artifacts with a few delightful detours along the way.
“I always come in here to show off the textile gallery,” Borick starts, as we embark on a truncated version of his top 10 tour. Textiles don’t sound sexy, and one may wonder, ‘OK but what about some shrunken heads?’ But the textiles, in this case flags, part of the museum’s Unfurled exhibit, are inherently special, already fascinating — despite their ephemeral material, they’ve not been eradicated by time.
“This Confederate battle flag on the wall was up for three months during a Union bombardment,” Borick explains. “There were 15,000 shots fired at the fort, the flag staff was knocked down three times, and the flag survived.” We walk speedily through the Unfurled exhibit — it doesn’t necessarily house any of Borick’s top artifacts. There are just so many stories, like the flag that catches Borick’s eye a few cases down. “Here’s a 42 star flag that was never officially adopted,” he says. I nod, quickly counting back from 50 to see if my state knowledge is, well, anywhere in the realm of correct. “Montana and the Dakotas, and Washington came into the Union, which made 42, and then on July 3, Idaho became a state, so that made 43.” The museum is one of the few and proud owners of the 42 star flag, a forgotten relic that would’ve been flown across the states if not for some bad timing.
“Ok I have to show you the mourning jewelry,” Borick leads me to a case with incredibly detailed necklaces, lockets. “Look at the these pieces, see the Spanish moss hanging down, and the branches? That’s the hair of the deceased, it’s so morbid, but cool.” We keep walking, crossing over to artifacts from 18th century Charleston. There is a chunk of a brick wall which looks like it could’ve dropped from any old building downtown, 100 years ago or yesterday. But it’s not just any wall, of course. “If you go up one two three four five rows, two little indentations, you see? Most likely from enslaved people. This is from the early defenses of Charleston, so early 1700s. It may have even been a person directly from Africa.” If these are in fact the fingerprints of an enslaved person, people who were not allowed to read or write or correspond with the outside world, then this is one of very few marks that we have of the hands that molded Charleston’s iconic buildings.
“OK this is definitely on my tour,” Borick excitedly walks over to a case with a fully formed axe head. “This is from the Ashley Cooper Plantation, which was abandoned five years after it was built. Everything found there would have been from the first 10 to 15 years of Charleston settlement, of South Carolina settlement. It’s one of the first tool remnants, a representative tool of creating civilization out of the wilderness.”
Across the room Borick brings me to another “definite” artifact on his top 10 tour. Except this one is probably “in the top five, the top three even.” And for good reason. The tiny fragment of a circa 1750s sweetgrass basket from the Heyward Washington House has the same weave as modern day baskets. “We brought in modern sweetgrass basket makers to look at these, and it’s the same. To me it’s incredibly cool that this craft brought over from Africa — that the technique is no different than it was almost 300 years ago.”
I don’t want to give all of Borick’s secrets away, although my relaying is far less satisfying than having a museum director excitedly go into great detail about a plethora of historical objects. Borick is a Revolutionary War buff, so expect to gape at the tale about a particular royal artillery badge. And you’ll definitely want to ask a few questions about the world’s largest flying bird, a holotype — a single type specimen upon which the description and name of a new species is based — that wasn’t discovered until 1983 at the Charleston airport. “What’s really cool about this tour is you won’t find it anywhere else in Charleston or in South Carolina, the breadth and the depth of what we have.”
Check out all of Borick’s favorite artifacts during the After Hours Access with Director’s Top 10 Tour — Thurs. June 21 at 5:15 and 6:15 p.m. The tour is $35/non-member and $20/member. If you’re an insatiable history fiend, be sure to check out the July 12 tour with Chief of Education Stephanie Thomas and the Aug. 9 tour with Chief Curator Grahame Long to learn what they’ve chosen.
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