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South Carolina's Historic Houses

When not being a photographer, I write about art history! Please check out my work!

The Charleston Museum

According to the official website, this museum has existed since before the United States gained independence. Walking through the entire place, I found it a comprehensive treasure trove of Charleston history that covered everything from the town's prehistory and Native American civilizations to the ancient art of Egypt and Greece (given to the museum by ambitious people).

The Charleston Museum is, in a sense, the city's personal storage unit that houses objects both functional and non-functional. They once belonged to someone else, but for whatever reason had to be moved to another place, so why not move it to a museum? Museums have always been a sort of glorified storage unit (with dramatic lighting), but the Charleston Museum makes that interpretation obvious. The science exhibits full of skeletons, leaf prints, and taxidermy show that even nature can be transported and preserved in storage.

The museum's entrance used a novel approach to let visitors know what to expect before they climbed the stairs (or used the elevator) and see the exhibits proper. A preliminary study behind glass acted as a sneak peek of the nature, art, weapons, and fashion found in the museum as a whole. The bathrooms even have a chamberpot display.

When exhibiting art, context is always an important aspect to consider.

What Exhibits Are There at the Charleston Museum?

The exhibits themselves shift between Charleston's natural history (examples of creatures big and small and samples of plants), historical events that shaped American culture as a whole (such as the American Revolutionary War and the American Civil War), and the local artistic achievements ("Charleston Silver" and pottery) that give Charleston its flair. The last time I noticed a city taking such pride in its history was when I visited Venice, Italy.

The first exhibits were dedicated to "Charleston Silver" and different types of flags that had connections to Charleston. Flags that once belonged to different parts of the world besides America (and represented either good or bad ideas) and were held in the hands of Charleston citizens now lay under dramatic lighting that highlights their torn cloth and lines left by folds. "Charleston Silver" exhibited the many ways a person could use silver as a medium. Besides molding silver to create tools for eating, drinking, and combing, there were dentures and books that had silver in them. Whether plain or decorative, they all shined prettily for the visitor.

Another section of the museum showcased a love of Chinese art and the labors of African slaves (from Sierra Leone, according to a text box). There, Charleston was contextualized as a cultured city shared by people willing and unwilling. Music played over the exhibitions of equipment and adverts for slave auctions. There were chains too, I believe. I also saw pottery whose designs predate the famous Burlon Craig face jugs. Furthermore, other forms of pottery that were in pieces that the museum did their best to show how they would look originally in one piece. Looking at these goods featured alongside weapons and soldiers' uniforms, luxury and war sat side by side on display.

Near the end, ancient Egyptian and Greek art sat next to animal skeletons. It felt similar to being in a rich, well-traveled noble person's personal space. However, there were molded plastic replicas of Mesopotamian and Egyptian sculptures that dwarfed the actual works, and while I know they were meant to act as signs that introduced the visitor into this section, they felt too kitsch for such a prestigious-looking collection. The main exhibition ended with a showcase of musical instruments such as banjos and pianos.

The Heyward-Washington House

Before officially entering and exploring the Heyward-Washington House itself, one had to explore the workspaces of the slaves. A separate place from the townhouse, the tiny house's interior contained a laundry room and kitchen. I found myself fascinated by the walls' decaying plaster and brickwork. In contrast, the townhouse itself had a pleasant, comfortable atmosphere and was decorated with luxuries. The awful underbelly sits side by side with a lovely façade.

The Heyward house did have art—mostly busts, figurines, cleverly designed furniture, and portraits, such as a reproduction of Gilbert Stuart's painting of George Washington. One hallway contained, much to my surprise and delight, the Marriage A la Mode print series as rendered by William Hogarth.

An English series in an American home. I had a long discussion with the guide about Hogarth and we had fun speculating about the little details in the house such as dents found in the door of the children's room. Probably done by someone sternly telling the brood to get up for lessons.

The Joseph Manigault House

Courtesy of the tour guide, I learned the definition of Federal-style architecture. After the tour guide talked about the house's symmetrical design, I also saw something similar courtesy of some furniture. On a fireplace, there was a carving of an Antiquity-era woman lying on her side that paralleled a strategically placed bench where a real-life person could lie on their side.

I saw more Classical influence on a window seat near what the guide called "a cantilevered staircase." To elaborate, there were sculptures of Venus and possibly of Vulcan. The paintings there were mostly portraits and still lifes. I did notice that while the portraits depicted the original owners of the house, I saw little to no background details to help frame the subjects. They did have artists I recognized such as Allan Ramsay and had a reproduction of a Correggio. Besides portraits and Neoclassical influence, there was more Chinese art.

Both the Manigault and the Heyward had common elements such as creating the Illusion of space. The former used fake doors and the latter used mirrors. They both also had paintings by an artist I had never heard of named Jeremiah Theüs. It was also fascinating to see how different classes of people were segregated in the spaces of these houses.

My Review

I loved these houses. I took an enlightening day trip through Charleston's colorful, disturbing, and turbulent history. Clustered together, one saw Charleston's standing in the American South and how it influenced the rest of the region and even the rest of the United States.

You can find more of my photographs of the three locations here.

© 2018 Catherine