Southern Agenda

250 Years of Lowcountry Treasures

Illustration: Tim Bower

While a Tyrannosaurus rex greets visitors at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, and an eleven-ton elephant guards the entry at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., the Charleston Museum welcomes guests in a decidedly Lowcountry fashion, with a forty-foot-long North Atlantic right whale skeleton dangling above the lobby. (The whale was captured in 1880 in Charleston Harbor, studied, and articulated by a nineteenth-century curator.) This year, the museum celebrates a major milestone with a two-part exhibit, America’s First Museum: 250 Years of Collecting, Preserving and Educating (the first part runs through June 4; the second opens June 17). “Charlestonians have always been very interested and invested in their history,” says museum director Carl Borick. “I think this museum, and the fact that it’s been around 250 years, underscores that importance of preservation to the community.” Founded in 1773 as the New World’s first official museum, the Charleston Museum initially collected the region’s natural splendors: fossils from a megalodon, a giant ground sloth, and a Pelagornis sandersi, the largest-ever flying bird, all native to the area in pre-historic eras. The anniversary exhibitions highlight some of the most powerful artifacts in the museum’s 2.4-million-object collection, including a pew made by enslaved people for a church in Edisto; a first edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America so delicate that curators carefully turn the page each week so no one image receives too much light; and a pink silk sack-back gown worn by the prominent eighteenth-century Charlestonian Eliza Lucas Pinckney, carefully preserved and displayed just once a decade.