This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first woman to be named director of a publicly funded museum in America, Charleston’s very own Laura Bragg. After starting at the Charleston Museum as a librarian, Bragg quickly worked her way up to director in 1920. To honor her legacy and celebrate Women’s History Month, the museum debuted a temporary exhibit on her life in March. The exhibit’s time was cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic, but now that the museum has reopened, you can check out the artifacts through the end of the summer and potentially into the fall.
“The exhibit is called Laura Bragg: Librarian, Educator and Director of the Charleston Museum because those were three really important roles that she played here in Charleston during her life and for us at the museum,” explained Liza Holian, the museum’s PR and events coordinator. “She was so full of life and inspiring. She really helped make the museum what we know and love today.”
Bragg made waves from the moment she stepped into her director position. She was responsible for creating the Charleston Free Library, oversaw the museum’s purchase of the Heyward-Washington House, expanded the museum’s collections, spearheaded new education programs and overturned a policy that prohibited black Charlestonians from visiting the museum. For Bragg, recording Charleston’s history and educating the community were her top priorities. She developed what are known as Bragg Boxes, which are essentially traveling exhibits that she would box up with items from the museum’s collections and take to underserved schools where students were, in some cases, prohibited from making field trips to the museum. “Education was really her focus,” said Holian. “She wanted to share the museum’s knowledge with as many people as possible.” The Charleston Museum still uses Bragg Boxes to this day, and many other institutions and museums across the country have adopted their own versions.
The exhibit displays some of her original Bragg Boxes along with early items that she acquired for the museum including examples of prehistoric and historic pottery. Bragg was especially interested in the work of Dave the Potter, and documented his experience as an enslaved man who was literate and took the risk of inscribing poetry on his pottery and dating his work.
The unique aspect of the exhibit is the insight that viewers have into Bragg’s life through pieces like original photos from the archives and clothing from the museum’s textile collections that give a sense of who Bragg was and help to deepen our understanding of her impact. “I love the personal aspect,” said Holian. “Because you can read about someone’s accomplishments and the way they change history and their community as much as you want, but these individual items make me feel like I know her personality, who she was as a person, and her sense of style.”
And, she did have a great sense of style. Many of Bragg’s clothing pieces highlight the fashion of the 1920s and tie into the era of the Charleston Renaissance, which goes hand-in-hand with another temporary exhibit on display. Etchings to Pastels features dozens of originals created by the Charleston Etchers Club. During her time as director, Bragg invited the club to keep their etching press at the museum in exchange for a few original etchings to be donated to the museum which remain in their collections today.
Bragg’s impact is still felt at the museum — its board recently renamed one of the main meeting spaces the Laura Bragg Boardroom. You can explore the exhibit from now until the end of summer, but the museum may keep it up through the fall. If you’re visiting the museum, the large facility allows for plenty of room to social distance as you walk through the nine permanent exhibits and handful of temporary displays. The museum is currently requiring all visitors to wear masks and maintain social distancing protocols.
The Charleston Museum is open Mondays-Saturdays, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sundays,
12-5 p.m. $12/adults, $10/youth,
$5/child. Charleston Museum, 360 Meeting St. Downtown. charlestonmuseum.org