While the sex appeal of historic artifacts might be found lacking to some (unless there’s something built into 18th century mahogany cabinets that serves as a long-lost aphrodisiac), there are almost always stories behind the objects that titillate. It’s the stories that make even the most history-averse gasp in horror or awe. It’s the stories that make one pause, think, and reassess. And it’s the stories that Charleston Museum chief curator Grahame Long wants visitors to hold on to.
The story of the museum itself dates back to 1773. Before the Revolutionary War, the first museum in America served as a “little brother to the British Museum (founded in 1753),” says Long. In its early years, the museum acted as more of a research facility until 1824 when the institution was officially open to the public. “We’ve been collecting globally for a long time,” notes Long, “we didn’t start to focus on just South Carolina or the Lowcountry until about the mid 20th century.” That global collection includes items from sailors (as Charleston was once an international seaport) like the head of a New Zealand chief and grass skirts from the Hawaiian islands. Whether the pieces are fascinating or mundane, it is the stories they carry that keep them in the permanent collection, Lowcountry ties or no.
With this in mind, the Storeroom Stories series was born. In 2013, when the museum faculty was reorganized to include multiple curators — Long became chief curator, Martha Zierden curator of archeology, Jennifer McCormick collections manager, Matthew Gibson curator of natural history, and Jan Hiester curator of textiles — it was decided that with their own knowledge bases and personal interests, the curators would take advantage of sharing artifacts that wouldn’t necessarily work in a full-blown exhibit. “That’s the joy of Storeroom Stories,” says the museum’s PR and marketing coordinator Shelby Duff, “it’s our excuse to show artifacts we wouldn’t normally be able to show.”
Every year the curators sit down and map out different artifacts that they want to share from the storeroom. “When we started this, I said ‘all bets are off.’ The artifact doesn’t need to have a Charleston connection, or even an American connection. It just needs to have a great story,” explains Long. And with approximately seven million artifacts to choose from, “it’s kind of like a playground for the curators.”
The storeroom, at 13,200 square feet, resembles the dusty, love-worn stacks of a university library. But instead of books lining the shelves, there are stuffed Carolina parakeets and passenger pigeons; Ivory tusks from the Siamese empire; and botanical specimens from Lewis and Clark, ostensibly rejected by president Thomas Jefferson in the early 1800s. The museum offers guided storeroom tours to the general public, but there’s nothing quite like being let loose in a two story room absolutely flooded with tales from here and afar.
Long explains that the Ivory tusks were brought to the states in the late 1880s by Dr. Thomas Heyward Hays, the consulting physician to Siam’s Royal Court. “So you have this Charlestonian over there working closely with Siamese royalty and he brings back these souvenirs. It becomes part of Charleston’s history in this really circular way,” says Long.
Each piece the chief curator touches becomes a potential storeroom story; even after 17 years, Long’s face lights up when he rediscovers, or perhaps (on a very rare occasion — this guy knows his stuff) discovers for the first time an object with a life all its own. From bandage rollers that were used on Morris Island during the Union invasion to pewter cuffs resembling a medieval torture device (they were actually used to prevent toddlers from sucking their thumbs in the 1880s), the storeroom contains multitudes, all organized in space-saving movable shelves.
Across from shelves stacked with tea sets ranging from human-sized to doll-sized, Long grabs a dented six-pack of canned water. Long explains that they used this as a Storeroom Story for the anniversary of Hurricane Hugo — not all history has to be centuries old — “Anheuser-Busch suspended beer production and sent down hundreds of thousands of packs of this canned water to the Lowcountry.” Long closes this row of shelves (the shelves move on a track built into the floor) and reveals rows and rows of pottery and glassware. He selects a standard looking ceramic cup, part of a large, simply designed set. “This looks pretty boring,” says Long, “but this would actually make a great Storeroom exhibit.” Long pauses, like any great storyteller, and builds up the mystery of the cup. “The owner of this set, Charleston native Mrs. William Jeffords, buried all of the glasses and dishes in her garden, planting cabbages over them in advance of the Union troops arrival in 1865.”
The current Storeroom Story is on ceramic creamware, “ubiquitous in archeological Charleston.” The artifacts are always displayed at the top of the stairs of the museum’s main hall, occupying one or two glass cases, so visitors can spend as much or as little time soaking in the one-off historical narrative before moving on to the museum’s permanent exhibits.
April’s Storeroom exhibit, from textile curator Jan Hiester, is a needlework schoolgirl sampler. And the story? The circa 1833 sampler was stitched by eight year old Julia Margaret Bachman, the daughter of Rev. John Bachman who was the minister of St. John’s Lutheran Church and also collaborated with naturalist John James Audubon on Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. Young Julia helped copy his original notes for publication in the early 1840s. View the sampler through April 31, then check out an original Japanese samurai suit — one of two suits belonging to the museum — in the Storeroom Story display case starting May 1.