History on Every Corner

07 May 2024

Charleston's Top Museums 

By Daria Smith

Simply walking around the Holy City feels like a snapshot in time. Charleston has long been a crux in the modern preservation movement since its inception in 1783, taking care to preserve its most treasured artifacts and historical records and is home to America’s first museum, constituted in 1773.

Charleston continues to have a vibrant museum scene, now with a designated Museum Mile walkable route comprised of six museums, which begins at the Charleston Visitor Center on Meeting Street. Read on to learn more about some of the area’s most notable artistic and historic attractions.

The Charleston Museum

360 Meeting St., Charleston

Nineteen individuals joined forces to collect books and publications from Great Britain on the eve of the American Revolution, forming the Charleston Library Society. In 1773, they founded the nation’s first museum, The Charleston Museum. The Natural History Gallery showcases prehistoric animal remains, including fossils of a primitive toothed whale and prehistoric crocodile. Permanent displays include the Lowcountry History Hall, Becoming Americans (Revolutionary War-themed), and a Civil War ‘City Under Siege’ exhibit. In the Lowcountry History Hall,​ see materials related to the Native Americans who first inhabited the South Carolina. 

“The Charleston Museum, at more than 250 years old, is considered America’s first museum and showcases the rich and vibrant history of the South Carolina Lowcountry,” says Carl Borick, Charleston Museum Director. “The museum boasts over 2.4 million artifacts, the most extensive collection of South Carolina-related treasures in the nation. Visitors can explore unique and meaningful exhibits in the museum that capture the region's historical significance and tour our two National Historic Landmark Houses. The Charleston Museum is committed to education, preservation and immersive experiences, making it a must-visit for residents and visitors worldwide.”

Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art

​​161 Calhoun St., Charleston

Established in 1984 on the College of Charleston's campus, the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art is part of the undergraduate School of the Arts named after the late artist William Halsey who taught at the university for two decades. The Halsey presents two to three exhibitions a year highlighting adventurous contemporary art by emerging, mid-career, and oddly overlooked artists. Over the Institute's 40 year history, it has shown hundreds of innovative and thought-provoking exhibitions. Free admission for all (donations accepted, memberships encouraged).

International African American Museum

14 Wharfside St., Charleston

The highly-anticipated International African American Museum officially opened in June 2023. It details the entire story of the African American journey, from ancient African civilization to modern day. The African Ancestors Memorial Garden stretches across the grounds and reflects on Gadsden’s Wharf—where an estimated 40% of African captives entered the U.S. Thought-provoking and emotional exhibits bring viewers on a journey with a new perspective.

Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon

122 E Bay St., Charleston

Built in 1771, the Georgian-style Old Exchange Building has served as a commercial exchange, custom house, post office, city hall, military headquarters and museum, and is now owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Everything from the signing of the U.S. Constitution to public slave auctions occurred here. Experience a self-guided exhibition along with a guided tour of the cellar. Pirates were held in the Court of Guard site in 1718, and American Revolution prisoners were secured in the Provost.

Gibbes Museum of Art

135 Meeting St., Charleston

Learn about Charleston’s history through art at one of America’s oldest art organizations—the Gibbes, founded in 1858 as the Carolina Art Association. Six to eight exhibits rotate annually with roughly 10,000 objects across several galleries. Art spans 350 years from early Colonial America to today’s contemporary works. View one of the country’s finest collections of tiny portraits in the Miniature Collection.

Museum at Market Hall

188 Meeting St., Charleston

Operated by the Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), the Museum at Market Hall has sat above City Market since 1899. Hundreds of genuine Civil War artifacts reside in the collection, containing Confederate flags, uniforms, swords and other ephemera. The USS Isaac P. Smith flag, an exquisite 34-star U.S. flag captured during the Civil War, was returned to the museum in January by conservator Josh Phillips. Open Thursday-Sunday from 11 a.m. - 4. p.m.

Historic House Museums

Downtown Charleston

Built in 1820, the Aiken-Rhett House (48 Elizabeth St.) was constructed by an affluent merchant and later owned by a rice planter and South Carolina Gov. William Aiken Jr. before the Historic Charleston Foundation purchased it. View peeling walls, ripped furniture and other original fixtures.

Conversely, the neoclassical Nathaniel Russell House (51 Meeting St.) erected in 1808 spotlights a grand spiral staircase, formal gardens, intricate walls, art and antiques maintained by Historic Charleston Foundation. It was renovated to evoke an early-19th-century Charleston mansion. Russell was a Charleston trader, controversially involved in the slave trade.

The Charleston Museum operates the Georgian-era Heyward-Washington House (87 Church St.) and the antebellum Joseph Manigault House (350 Meeting St.). Thomas Heyward Jr. who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and George Washington lodged at the home in 1791. Sporting Adam-style architecture, the 1803-era Manigault House encased the prominent Charleston Huguenots and Joseph Manigault, a prosperous planter and state legislator.

Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum

40 Patriots Point Rd., Mt Pleasant

Instituted in the 1970s, Patriots Point Naval & Maritime Museum sits on the Charleston Harbor, encasing a fleet of three National Historic Landmark ships, the Cold War Memorial, the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, the agency’s official Medal of Honor Museum and the country’s only Vietnam Experience Exhibit. World War II aircraft carrier, USS Yorktown, is the 27,000-ton cornerstone with 13 decks amidst the 888-foot-long ship. 

Magnolia House Museum at Magnolia Plantation

3550 Ashley River Rd., Charleston

Founded in 1679, Magnolia Plantation is home to the last behemoth romantic garden left in the United States, comprising a tranquil landscape where people and nature coexist. It’s the only plantation on the Ashley River to survive both the American Revolution and the Civil War. Experience the wildlife center, nature train or boat tour, and historic home that entertained guests such as Henry Ford and Eleanor Roosevelt.

“On the guided Magnolia House tour, you’ll learn about the Europeans who colonized South Carolina, the Drayton family that still owns the plantation today and the enslaved people who worked in the rice fields, the house and in the gardens,” said Kayla Hoey, Magnolia Plantation Public Relations Manager. “Family china, furniture, artwork and decor indicative of life in post-Civil War Charleston immerse guests in a trip through time.”

Village Museum

401 Pinckney St., McClellanville

Founded by “accidental historian” Selden B. "Bud" Hill in 1999, the Village Museum is one of South Carolina’s preeminent small-town museums. Artifacts detail the history of the St. James Santee Parish, the village of McClellanville and Archibald Rutledge, legendary sporting writer and the state's first poet laureate. There’s also a family room upstairs, dotted with bookshelves, for visitors to trace their genealogy. Preservation and education are part of Bud’s decree.

The North Charleston Fire Museum and Educational Center

‘4975 Centre Pointe Dr., North Charleston

Dating back to the 1780s, the North Charleston Fire Museum houses the nation’s biggest collection of professionally-restored American LaFrance fire apparatuses. Discover firefighting gear and intriguing, interactive exhibits that are fun for the whole family.

Summerville Museum and Research Center

100 E Doty Ave., Summerville

In the center of historic Summerville, the Summerville Museum and Research Center is hidden in plain sight amidst old camellias and azaleas. History buffs can educate themselves with displays ranging from Civil War activities to ancient shark teeth. Uncover the glory days when the town boasted fabulous inns. Learn about the Reverend Gadsden, the first rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

Children's Museum of the Lowcountry

25 Ann St., Charleston

Occupy the little ones at the Children's Museum of the Lowcountry, complete with mini-slides, an art room, a pirate ship, an organic garden, an interactive water model of Charleston, a physics-centric exhibit and a two-story medieval creativity castle with a puppet theatre.


Other Uniquely Charleston Attractions

South Carolina Aquarium

100 Aquarium Wharf, Charleston

Sea turtles are ancient mariners, divulging the natural history of a city enclosed by water. The South Carolina Aquarium portrays a breathtaking waterfront view with regular dolphin sightings. More than 5,000 plants and animals live here, including river otters, sea turtles, horseshoe crabs, sharks, sea urchins and fresh and saltwater fish. Touch a horseshoe crab at the Touch Tank or feed a cownose ray at The Shallows. Don’t miss the two-story, 385,000-gallon Great Ocean Tank (the deepest in North America) or the Sea Turtle Care Center.

“We live in an age when people are increasingly isolated from nature,” says Kevin Mills, South Carolina Aquarium President and CEO. “At the Aquarium lies a massive world created within the confines of a concrete building, connecting people to water, wildlife and wild places that they might never get the chance to experience on their own. The Aquarium provides a window into the wild, introducing guests to animals often out of sight and out of mind. 

Where else can you stand face-to-face with a rescued American bald eagle unable to live in the wild, peer into an array of swooping and swarming stingrays, or connect with a rescued sea turtle undergoing rehabilitation? We know that to care for species, you first must care about them.”

The Sound of Charleston

150 Meeting St., Charleston

Fourteen years ago, a new type of concert series was launched called The Sound of Charleston that combined music and history of the Lowcountry in the iconic Circular Congregational Church, a National Historic Landmark, featuring the area’s finest singers and musicians. Residents and visitors hear history come to life through gospel spirituals, Civil War songs, Gershwin’s “Porgy & Bess” and “Rhapsody in Blue,” jazz and light classics of the St. Cecelia Society. “Amazing Grace,” composed by John Newton after worshipping in the venue, concludes every show. For 350 years, Charleston’s musical heritage has been as diverse as the people who have lived here. Now celebrating its 15th season, The Sound of Charleston is both entertaining and educational—and wholly unforgettable. Enjoy concerts on select Wednesdays and Saturdays at 7 p.m. with special performances during Spoleto Festival in June and during the holidays. For tickets, visit www.soundofcharleston.com

-Jenny Peterson

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