Home Traveling guide A guide to America’s oldest museum, the Charleston

A guide to America’s oldest museum, the Charleston


Widely recognized as the nation’s oldest museum, the Charleston Museum was founded in 1773, before the official start of the American Revolution. It was the same year that the Boston Tea Party was held at that city’s Griffin’s Wharf, where political protesters threw hundreds of chests full of tea into the harbor as part of their tax-free demonstration.

The non-profit museum is said to have been inspired by the British Museum and was created by the Charleston Library Society. Organizers began cultivating various collections, with most items focusing on the natural history and culture of the South Carolina Lowcountry.


With its downtown location at 360 Meeting Street, the Charleston Museum is just blocks from the city’s bustling harbor and is open year-round. The museum complex includes two historic houses open for tours; a combination of museum and house tour tickets are available.

The museum features several themed galleries that house permanent collections, and two exhibits are on display in 2022. “Becoming Americans: Charleston in the Revolution” chronicles the city’s role in the American Revolution and the more than 100 military engagements that took place in the Charleston area. , including the famous Battle of Sullivan’s Island in 1776, considered the colonists’ first decisive victory over Britain’s Royal Navy.

In the “City Under Siege: Charleston in the Civil War” exhibit, artifacts and billboards illustrate the city’s role in the Civil War. Weapons, such as artillery shells, swords, rifles and pistols, as well as the personal belongings of soldiers and civilians, are on display. A highlight of this exhibit is the table and chairs that were used when state Secession Convention delegates drafted South Carolina’s secession ordinance in 1860.

Related: These are the best times to visit Charleston (and what to do there)

The Charleston Museum features several permanent collections

The Charleston Museum’s major permanent collections include fine arts, geology, pottery, ornithology, slave badges and plantations, weaponry, natural history and archeology, among others. South Carolina.

In the Charleston Museum’s Slave Badge Collection, visitors can see the copper badges that slaves were forced to wear. According to museum records, slave owners were required to obtain a city badge to be worn by any slave sent to work outside of the slave owner’s property. Another city rule required freed slaves age 15 and older to wear a freedman’s badge.

The museum’s collection of weapons features hunting, sporting and military items from the early 17th to mid-20th centuries. The photography collection has some 35,000 photos of Charleston’s streets and shoreline, including those showing post-Civil War devastation and the extreme damage wrought by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Local judges, members of the Charleston’s clergy and prominent women are featured in paintings and portraits found in the museum’s Fine Arts Collection, with works from the 18th century to the early 20th century.

Visitors to the museum can view the clothing and accessories of 18th-century Charleston residents in the Costume Collection, which features a wide range of clothing, including elegant dresses and gowns, military uniforms, daytime swimsuits, as well as handbags, shoes and hats. .

In the museum’s Lowcountry History Room, exhibits range from Native American artifacts to tools that slaves used while working on the area’s plantations. Another gallery, titled Early Days, houses items that Charleston-area residents obtained while traveling around the world and then donated to the museum. These include an Egyptian mummy and mummy case, Roman and Greek artifacts, and even animal specimens.

Visits to historic homes can be part of a museum visit

Visitors to the Museum of Charleston can tour two historic homes, the Joseph Manigault House, also known as the Charleston Huguenot House and located adjacent to the museum, and the Heyward-Washington House, located nearby at 87 Church Street.

The Heyward-Washington House, which dates to 1772, was the home of Thomas Heyward Jr., signer of the Declaration of Independence. The residence also housed George Washington when he visited the city of Charleston in 1791.

Related: Charleston is home to the oldest garden in the United States

The grand antebellum Joseph Manigault home was built in 1803 for the Manigault family, who made their fortune from rice plantations operated by enslaved African Americans. According to the museum, Joseph Manigault inherited several plantations from his grandfather in 1788, as well as some 200 slaves. The house was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1973.

The property includes a period garden and interpretive signs point to smaller historic buildings on the site, including the kitchen, barn and slave quarters.

Related: When and where to eat oysters in Charleston, SC

Adult admission to the Charleston Museum is $12. With a tour of a historic home, it’s $18; with the two historic houses, the cost is $25. Visitors can take home a souvenir of their visit to the oldest museum in the country. The Charleston Museum store sells copies of historic city photos, 18th-century maps of the Lowcountry Harbor and Charleston, porcelain wares, puzzles, and more.