Chronicling the Ordinary
South Carolina is on display at the State Museum in Columbia.
by Nancy Higgins
A "people's museum" is the way Dr. Overton Ganong, executive director, likes to describe the South Carolina State Museum. Not long after the museum opened in 1988, a staff member learned just how much of a people's museum it really is. While giving a tour to a group of third graders, she paused in the Space Science Gallery and explained that the area was dedicated to the memory of Dr. Ronald E. McNair, the Lake City native who died in 1986 on the Challenger space shuttle.
Striving to be perky, she asked the children, "Can any of you tell me who Dr. McNair was?"
The teacher pointed to a little boy. "Ask him," she said.
Leaning down close to the child, the guide expected to hear him describe McNair as an astronaut or scientist. Instead, he shyly whispered, "He was my cousin."
The museum tells the story of the people of South Carolina - including people with young cousins who visit the museum - and it does it with things that were used, created and discovered by people. These objects range from the national and state flags that were part of McNair's flight kit on the Challenger to a throne-like chair used by the royal governors of colonial South Carolina to 16 fossilized vertebrae of a 40-million-year-old snake that two 9-year-olds found at Cross Quarry near Lake Moultrie.
Many exhibits are familiar to practically any of the estimated 200,000 people from South Carolina and around the world who cross the threshold of the Columbia Mills Building every year. A 43-foot replica of the giant white shark is so well-known it almost seems to be the museum's mascot. The glyptodont, a relative of the armadillo, has been fondly but inaccurately referred to as "the museum's dinosaur." A full-size replica of The Best Friend of Charleston, the first train to make regular freight and passenger runs in the US, dominates the entrance to the third floor and the two-story view from the fourth.
The elegant, wrought-iron Philip Simmons gate not only contains many symbols of the Palmetto State but is a tribute to its maker, a well-known Charleston blacksmith. The building itself, which housed the world's first all-electric textile mill, is proudly described as the museum's "largest artifact."
These objects are almost impossible for a visitor to miss. But there are others well worth taking time to find and view. An excellent example is a two-inch tall swan effigy, on loan from the SC Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology, which sits primly in the Mississippian case in the Native American Exhibit. The steatite carving is exquisite testimony to the craftsmanship of people who lived in the Southeast between 300 and 1,000 years ago.
Another small, precious object is the Nobel Prize medal Dr. Charles Townes, a native of Greenville, was awarded in 1964 for the development of the laser. The medal is the centerpiece of an exhibit that explores the development and uses of the laser. Townes, who now lives in Berkeley, CA, has been to the museum many times. Ron Shelton, chief curator of science and technology, says the physicist impresses visitors with his modesty and sense of humor, as well as his knowledge of science.
One of Shelton's favorite stories is of Townes comparing his invention of the laser to a beaver talking about the Hoover Dam. "The beaver says he didn't actually build the dam, but it's based on an idea of his. That's the story of the laser. Townes didn't develop all the many of uses for the laser, but these uses are based on the device he invented."
Townes isn't the only Nobel Prize winner with a sense of humor. Dr. Kary Mullis, who was reared in Columbia, was riding the surf off La Jolla, CA, when word came that he had won the
1993 Nobel Prize in chemistry for the invention of the polymerase chain reaction, a way of rapidly copying genetic material. When the museum showed an interest in the historic surfboard, Mullis cheerfully donated it.
People have been very generous, even if they find it a little hard to understand why the museum wants a particular object, says Dr. Rodger Stroup, director of collections and interpretation. The museum was pleased to receive a one-room school house but disappointed
that the outhouse with it was too dilapidated to preserve. "We just kind of let folks know we were interested in finding an outhouse that was in condition to move," he says. Tabernacle United Methodist Church in Spartanburg County came through. The two-holer, which now sits next to the school house on the museum's fourth floor, was constructed about 1949, "but it's built the same way they've been built for 200 years," Stroup says.
The "Rural Life" area brings back many memories, he says. "You'll hear older folks telling their grandkids about it all the time."
Ironically, what is now viewed as one of the most fascinating exhibits in the gallery was controversial in the beginning. After researching a horse-drawn hearse found in a country store in Spartanburg County, Stroup became interested in funeral and mourning customs. But few museums have such exhibits, and there was real concern, he says, about whether the topic was appropriate. Since then, he has been told it is one of the most interesting exhibits on the cultural history floor.
Like most museums, the State Museum exhibits only a small part of its collection, which includes about 55,000 objects. But some pieces are just too good for Stroup and his coworkers to keep in storage very long. One such artifact is a South Carolina secession flag recently added to the museum's Civil War Arms Exhibit. The 10- by 8-1/4-inch banner resembles a US flag except there is a palmetto tree in the blue field, and there are fewer - and broader - stripes. According to an inscription on it, it was found November 8, 1861, on a wall in the abandoned Hilton Head Island home of Confederate Gen. Thomas Drayton.
Fritz Hamer, chief curator of history, says the flag is important because it is a unique handmade object and because few objects related to the secession movement survive.
Another unusual object, which will go on exhibit in early 1997, is a grave marker made of Edgefield pottery, an alkaline-glazed stoneware developed in South Carolina in the early 1800s. The museum recently acquired the only two such markers known to exist in South Carolina. Edgefield pots were placed on graves, but there is no record of headstones, Stroup says.
The exhibit will include other examples of Edgefield pottery, including humorous and some-times grotesque face jugs and a "Dave pot," a pot created by a slave who wrote verses on his work.
It is easy to see the value to a museum in flags and pottery or even in a football signed by the Clemson University team who won the national championship in 1980. But that is less true of some of the other objects the museum accumulates for the people of South Carolina. In the early 1980s, Stroup asked staff members to save cereal boxes and casual clothes such as jeans and T-shirts. The idea, he says, was to have a cache of materials that may be added to the collection in the future.
"You think of a museum being only interested in fancy portraits and inaugural ball gowns and Confederate uniforms," he says. "We're interested in the ordinary."
And that can be the hardest to collect. The museum has plenty of wedding gowns but virtually no work clothes before the 1920s. Objects used every day are typically forgotten.
A perfect example, Stroup says, is the slide rule. Encased in leather, it was the pride of any serious math or science student in the 1960s. Now the slide rule has been replaced by the ubiquitous, inexpensive pocket calculator. "No one will know what a slide rule is in a hundred years," he says. However, future State Museum curators will be able to show them. There are two in the collection.
Curators, the staff members who make decisions about what the museum acquires, have a professional obligation and a natural tendency to collect. "But you've got to pick and choose," Stroup says. The museum's exhibit galleries cover the equivalent of four football fields, and storage areas include a large offsite building. Even so, space is limited. "We collect such a wide variety of things - and some of the things are big," he says. Among them are cars, farm machinery, steam engines and a Conestoga wagon. A recent addition is a 20- by 17-foot topiary, a sculpture made of a living plant, titled "Heart Within a Heart."
The plant was moved to the museum's front lawn in late October. A gift of its creator, Pearl Fryar of Bishopville, the Hollywood twist juniper is the first major piece to leave his garden.
For a museum to collect a plant, admits Polly Laffitte, chief curator of art, "is a bit out of the ordinary. But it's not just any plant, and we're collecting it for its artistic significance."
Fryar has received much acclaim as a gardener but is only beginning to be recognized as an artist, Laffitte says. She compares his whimsical work to drawings by Dr. Seuss.
Fryar will be one the artists featured in "Still Worth Keeping: Communities, Preservation and Self-Taught Artists," an exhibit that will open at the museum in October 1997. He has no formal training in landscaping or art, Laffitte says. "He had no idea what a topiary was when he started to work on his garden. His major focus was to win 'yard of the month' and to do something above average."
He definitely succeeded, she says. The work "is far above average in its creativity and its expressive qualities. He's found something within. There's a definite drive, a strong creative force that's found expression in topiary art."
"Heart Within a Heart" will be 20 feet tall and 25 feet wide when it is mature. More of Fryar's topiaries will be added to the museum grounds before the exhibit opens.
One might say that the State Museum's collection is really growing.
The South Carolina State Museum is located at 301 Gervais St., Columbia, SC. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 1-5 p.m. Sunday. For information, call (803) 737-4921.
Nancy Higgins is a public information specialist at the State Museum in Columbia.
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