James Turner is the director of the Karpeles Manuscript Museum, which was originally built in 1856 at the Saint James Methodist Church. | Photos by Ruta Smith

Jaw dropping exhibits

 See jaw-dropping manuscripts. View a 3 billion-year-old fossil. Soak up the gloom of an old slave market. All three awesome experiences can be found by exploring a museum in Charleston that you may never have visited.

As the largest and oldest city in the state, Charleston is home to a plethora of museums — though they are most often frequented by tourists. Locals already familiar with Charleston’s culture and history may assume museums have nothing new to offer. And they’d be wrong.

There are museums we know and love, like the Charleston Museum, the official start of the city’s Museum Mile, which stretches along Meeting Street. Down the road you’ll find the Gibbes Museum of Art, followed by historical houses like the Aiken-Rhett House and the Joseph Manigault House as well as churches including the Circular Congregational Church.

But stray away from Meeting Street and you’ll find lesser-known museums that also provide interesting looks at the city’s history and people.

First-hand accounts bring history to life

You’ve likely driven past the imposing building with giant Corinthian columns on the corner of downtown’s Spring and Coming streets and wondered: What is that place?

Karpeles Manuscript Museum.

It’s the Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum, one of nine manuscript museums in the country. It rotates selections from the Karpeles Library System, one of the world’s largest private holdings of original historical manuscripts. The Karpeles collection covers subjects ranging from music and art to politics and historical events, containing Gutenberg Bibles, Star Trek scripts and some 10,000 documents on the Spanish Armada.

“We’ve got these sorts of things that are just jaw-dropping,” said James Turner, the museum’s director since 2016. “Printing plates from original publications by Dickens. One of the first baseball cards that was ever printed has come through here. The flight log from the Enola Gay, which dropped the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. It’s an impressive collection, and it’s extraordinarily broad.” 

Turner said he appreciates how the museum offers firsthand accounts of historical figures and events, especially in the exhibits focused on individual stories. For example, Turner highlighted a past exhibition featuring Argentine politician Eva PerÓn’s diaries, letters of correspondence with her husband, former President of Argentina Juan Domingo PerÓn, and even dental records. 

“You get to see her as a person, instead of a monolith,” he said.

The exhibitions change three times a year. From early April through September, there is an exhibition on Russian history. A Che Guevara exhibition runs September to December. Admission is free.

A page from the fourth edition of the first printed Bible, produced on a Gutenberg printing press.

“I’m excited for the Guevara exhibit. There are things in there I think people will be surprised to see. There’s a notebook from a CIA operative who was keeping tabs on Che while he was in Cuba. Literally a page-by-page account of who this guy was and what his relationship was with the people around him.”

Turner said the museum has taught him the meaning of the cliché, “History is a living thing.”

“We tend to look at things in history like they are written in stone, this is what happened. And the reality of that is completely the opposite,” he said. “We’re constantly learning new things about the way certain things unfolded. You look at something like the Bay of Pigs, and the documents reveal this whole other side of this event that we never really understood before. Perception is much of history, so it can be quite illuminating to go back and read the firsthand documents.”

Ponder your place in geological time

Sarah Bossenecker (above), collections manager for the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History, said newly discovered fossils are consistently added to the collection.

Just down the street is the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History, a public museum on the second floor of the College of Charleston (CofC) School for Sciences and Mathematics on Calhoun Street. The museum displays almost 1,000 vertebrate and invertebrate fossils, including dinosaur bones, extinct mammals and plants of North America, ocean life through time and more. The oldest fossil in the museum is nearly 3 billion years old.

The reconstructed Megalodon jaw is “everyone’s favorite,” said Collections Manager Sarah Bossenecker. 

The museum is free and manned by geology undergraduates who work as student docents offering guided tours of the museum. Bossenecker said the docents can cater the museum experience for any age. 

The museum’s namesake, Mace Brown, was a financier with a fossil obsession who donated his collection to CofC in 2010. Bossenecker has worked there since 2015 along with her partner Robert Bossenecker, who teaches geology at CofC and conducts research on the assemblage of early whales. Sarah Bossenecker said she and her husband have expanded the collection over the years with the help of the amateur paleontology community. 

“We try to really highlight things that you can find in your own backyard. We want to highlight how unique they are to Charleston,” she said. “It’s a really important area for early cetaceans, whale and dolphin evolution — 20 to 30 million years ago, the ocean was further inland and all of Charleston was underwater. So we have fossils that you can’t really see anywhere else.”

The city’s violent history

The Old Slave Mart Museum at 6 Chalmers St. shares stories of the domestic slave trade. The building is located at the former site of Ryan’s Mart, Charleston’s most prominent location for public slave auctions from 1856 to 1863.

Walter Boags (above) and other museum educators provide onsite tours of the Old Slave Mart Museum.

Walter Boags, who has worked at the museum for eight years and as a tour guide since 1990, said the museum “serves as a reminder that Charleston is a city built on and sustained by slave labor for nearly two centuries,” and encouraged locals to visit the museum to continue to educate themselves and pay respect to the city’s past. 

Embark on a self-guided tour through the two-story building with reading materials that provide an informative learning experience about a tragic piece of national history. Some information is produced by CofC’s Center for the Study of Slavery under the direction of the program’s founder and director, Dr. Bernard Powers. The rest is from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, a research division of the New York Public Library.

Photos by Ruta Smith

“The building evokes an uncomfortable feeling of the past, but don’t expect the inside to look like it did when people were sold there. In order to maximize your visit, plan on spending at least an hour reading the very informative posters and soaking in the environment,” according to the museum’s website.

The heavy feeling of standing in the space is palpable. Ryan’s Mart was a four-building complex stretching from Chalmers to Queen streets. It included a “barracoon,” or slave jail, a kitchen and a “dead house,” a morgue. The museum is housed in the last remaining structure, which served as a sales and showroom. The museum recently added a replica of the original structure.

“We are here to carry this museum on and to carry it forward to carry the history forward,” Boags said. “We’re here to educate people because this is a legacy that we all live and have to deal with today.”

Exciting exhibitions

William Sweetlove/Courtesy the GIbbes

The Gibbes Museum of Art’s special exhibition Un/Natural Selections: Wildlife in Contemporary Art runs until April 16 and explores the diverse ways contemporary artists use animal imagery to address humanity’s interconnectedness with the natural world. 

The Charleston Museum presents J. Drew Lanham: A Feel Guide to John James Audubon’s Birds of America through April 28. Work by award-winning poet and Clemson cultural ornithologist J. Drew Lanham reimagines Audubon’s classic field guide.

The Halsey Institute of
Contemporary Art
and the College of Charleston Studio Art Department present Young Contemporaries 2023, opening on March 17. The annual exhibition, now in its 38th year, is a celebration of talented student artists at the College of Charleston.

The City Gallery presents the 2023 Piccolo Spoleto Juried Art Exhibition March 17 through May 7. The top three prize winners will be on display during the 2023 Piccolo Spoleto Festival from May 26 to June 11.

Brookgreen Gardens in Murrells Inlet shows a collection of sculptures by iconic 19th century sculptor Auguste Rodin through April 24. Rodin: Contemplation and Dreams is made up of 46 works including nine life-size statues, portraits, full figures, torsos, fragments and reliefs.

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