S.C. Sea Grant Consortium

Coastal Heritage Magazine

Coastal Museums: Showcasing Homegrown History

The rich culture of coastal South Carolina has come to life in a wave of history museums opened in the past few decades.

An open scrapbook with old pictures.

Connecting Dots. In addition to exhibits, The Village Museum features a second-floor room filled with binders of photographs and family records for genealogy researchers. Photo by Grace Beahm Alford.

Showcasing Homegrown History

The word “museum” traces its roots to Greek mythological muses, goddesses most often associated with art, literature, and science. The muse Clio was the daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory, and her imprint made a person or event famous. She was the muse of history.

Clio would feel right at home in coastal South Carolina, where history looms large and museums celebrating local and regional heritage have proliferated in the past few decades.

The legacy of museums in coastal South Carolina goes way back; the Charleston Museum was the country’s first, established in 1733. That venerable institution for generations has drawn visitors and school field trips from throughout the region. But these days, students, newcomers, and longtime residents with a passion for history have plenty of options.

Want to experience farming heritage in the Pee Dee region? Check out Horry County Museum in Conway. Want to step inside a former slave cabin? Head to Edisto Island Museum. Want to learn about the first European settlement on North America? Visit Santa Elena History Center in Beaufort.

Among local facilities, the 38-year-old Horry County Museum is an old-timer. Most are less than 30 years old, and several opened their doors or expanded remarkably in the past decade. They represent the newest entry on a timeline. Following the lead of Charleston, museums were established in major U.S. cities in the 1800s. By 1900, they were viewed as centers of public enlightenment. Many of those early museums focused on natural history, filled with specimens of flora and fauna gathered by scientists.

More recently, social history has moved to the forefront, especially in museums born in smaller communities which operated on shoestring budgets. The S.C. Federation of Museums now has 46 members, and 35 of them get by on less than $500,000 annually, says Fielding Freed, director of house museums at Historic Columbia and vice president of the state museum federation.

Map of museums featured in this article.

History museums tell the stories of South Carolina’s coastal communities.

“According to some estimates, history museums and historic sites account for two of every three museums in this country,” writes Randolph Starn in A Historian’s Brief Guide to New Museum Studies. “They are also the most widespread and accessible museum type, from the great public collections down to the small town’s roomful of memorabilia. It is no stretch… to suppose that museums actually deliver more history, more effectively, more of the time, to more people than historians do.”

In coastal South Carolina, each museum takes a slightly different tack. Some encourage visitors to roam the exhibits; others provide docents, or guides. Some rely on text-heavy displays; others feature high-tech delivery. Some focus on one topic; others take a broader view. But, to use Starn’s terminology, they all deliver history.

Horry County Museum

Walter Hill knows a true local is visiting Horry County Museum when someone stops in one of the exhibit rooms and gazes around at the walls and windows. “I see it every day,” says the museum’s director. “They’ll say ‘Yep. Fourth Grade. I sat right here and looked out that window and day-dreamed.’ ”

Stoking childhood memories is one of the benefits of housing a museum in the former Burroughs Graded School. Large classrooms also transform into ideal exhibit spaces, and the renovated auditorium is perfect for history lectures, educational films, and music events.

Horry County Museum opened in 1981 a few blocks down Conway’s Main Street before moving to its current location in 2014. When other county departments moved out of the former school, county officials spent nearly a decade turning it back into a school/museum.

The big-ticket item, just inside the entrance, was a new helical staircase looping around an aquarium filled with local fish species. It’s a spectacular first impression for tourists, but former students tend to go straight down the halls to old classrooms or the auditorium. On a daily basis, Hill balances that dual mission.

“We straddle the fence like all museums in growing communities,” Hill says. “We have to introduce tourists to the unique stories of our communities, but we don’t want to tell locals the same stories they’ve heard since third grade. Then there are the students in third grade now, and we want to engage them so they can get more rooted in their communities.”

Tourists might linger at exhibits on the Native-American Waccamaw tribe that lived in the region before Europeans arrived. Older locals stop at the wall filled with names of residents who died fighting in World War I and World War II. Younger locals love the room filled with taxidermy displays of local wildlife, and they are amazed when told all of the animals except the largest black bear died after being hit by vehicles.

The building has 60,000 square feet of space, and that’s still not enough. Visitors are encouraged to drive 4.5 miles up U.S. 701 to the museum’s adjunct facility – the 17-acre L.W. Paul Living History Farm. There they will find a farmscape straight out of the first half of the 20th century. Local businessman Larry Paul funded construction of period-authentic buildings – including a small family house, a grist mill, a smokehouse, and a tobacco-curing barn. Demonstrations highlight blacksmithing, syrup making, and cow milking.

The goal is to enlighten visitors about the deep agricultural roots in Horry County. Hill feels a special calling to share that history. “My family’s been in this area for 300 years,” he says, “and this is my family history.”

Georgetown’s Museum Cluster

A few miles south, Georgetown feels like one big museum, with 46 pre-Civil War structures within a few blocks. Visitors seem to encounter a historic marker or a museum every few steps.

The Rice Museum set the trend nearly half a century ago, when part of the former Kaminski Hardware building, built in 1842 on Front Street, was converted into a celebration of the antebellum rice culture that created wealth for the region’s plantation owners. Today, museum guides take visitors through exhibits on the history and process of rice-growing.

Other sections feature the history of Kaminski’s store (a separate Kaminski House Museum is a few blocks away) and the African-American culture of the region. Visitors can learn about the first black member of the U.S. House of Representatives – Joseph Hayne Rainey – and then walk a few blocks to see, from the outside only, the lovingly renovated house where he lived during the Reconstruction era.


Art History. The story quilt created by Bunny Rodrigues is the centerpiece of the Gullah Museum in Georgetown, South Carolina, telling a different piece of the culture’s history with each panel. Photo by Joey Holleman, S.C. Sea Grant Consortium.

The third floor of the museum is dominated by the remains of the Brown’s Ferry Vessel, which was built around 1700, sank in the Black River with a load of bricks in the 1730s, and was carefully raised by archaeologists in 1976. It’s touted as the oldest recovered vessel in the United States.

The Brown’s Ferry Vessel also gets plenty of attention a few blocks away at the S.C. Maritime Museum, which opened in 2011. Bricks from the Black River wreck share the stage with a Fresnel lens from the North Island lighthouse and an exhibit on the Harvest Moon, a steam-operated Union gunboat sunk by a torpedo in Winyah Bay in 1865.

Both the Rice Museum and the S.C. Maritime Museum branch out from their title subjects to tell the area’s story. For more of that general history, walk a block inland from Front Street to Georgetown County Museum. Local history buffs opened the museum in 2005, and the collection moved to its current building – a former Masonic Lodge – in 2013.

Two large rooms are filled with donated memorabilia used as props to document rice culture, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the lumber and fishing industries, and local schools and churches. Volunteer docents provide a tour that skims the surface. Visitors who want to delve deeper can stick around for hours reading text cards for nearly every item.

Another couple of blocks away, the Gullah Museum takes a different approach. Owner Andrew Rodrigues sits down with visitors and guides them through the sections of a story quilt created by his wife, Bunny. The quilt was designed to celebrate the unique culture created by formerly enslaved Africans in the coastal southeastern United States.

Many communities the size of Georgetown, population about 10,000, have trouble supporting one museum. But Georgetown’s museum cluster thrives in a town that has marketed itself well as a historic day trip for tourists flocking beaches in the Myrtle Beach area.

The Village Museum

The Village Museum in McClellanville contrasts with Georgetown’s tourism outreach. Posted hours reveal the community character: Open Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, 10:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m., closed noon to 1:00 p.m. for lunch.

Selden “Bud” Hill, who has retired twice as director of the museum but still shows up routinely, accentuates the small-town impression. “Do we get a flood of people? No. We don’t want a flood of people. We’re McClellanville. We’re just a little village,” he says.

But the little village has a rich history, and a museum that crams exhibits about its fascinating past into the bottom floor of the former town hall. The two-story building itself tells a story, having been flooded to the second floor during Hurricane Hugo in 1989. The village built a new office next door, and residents got together to turn the old building into a museum.


Ancient Artifacts. Bud Hill, director emeritus of The Village Museum, tells the story behind the donation of a centuries-old dugout canoe to the collection. Photo by Grace Beahm Alford.

Exhibits document wealthy rice plantation owners creating a summer retreat for the rich landowners on the Jeremy Creek waterfront, which grew into McClellanville. Every corner is filled with artifacts – ancient sharks’ teeth, a modern whale vertebrae, oyster tongs, shrimp nets, and replicas of historic boats and the various Cape Romain lighthouses.

“Big museums are getting rid of artifacts and putting up screens,” Hill says. “The screens might tell the story beautifully, but where’s the stuff. Museums like this are not in vogue.”

Hill says children’s eyes light up when they push the button to start a replica of a windmill built to power a timber-cutting operation on Cape Romain’s Mill Island in the late 1700s. Millwright Jonathan Lucas invented the original. The replica, complete with miniature saws cutting through tiny tree trunks, was built by former resident Lee Arthur. On second visits to the museum, youngsters beg to push the button again.

Arthur’s willingness to build the replica is typical of how things get done at The Village Museum. The municipal government rents the building to the nonprofit museum for $1 a year. Operations are funded by memberships, donations, grants, and sales of books in the gift shop.

Despite all the treasures downstairs, what sets The Village Museum apart is the extensive collection of local family histories upstairs. Many were collected by Agnes Leland Baldwin, who wrote a book on early settlers of South Carolina. Others were donated by families with two centuries of roots in the region.

The collection also includes maps, charts, and copies of photographs scanned from family albums. The room is a genealogist’s dream. But don’t think The Village Museum is entirely stuck in the past. The museum recently earned a grant to begin digitizing its entire collection, and folks who moved away soon will be able to search the database for family history details.

“We will be so far in front of most museums in this way,” Hill says. “We’re a little bit old world, and a little bit new.”

Berkeley County Museum and Heritage Center

In Moncks Corner, visitors to Old Santee Canal Park often mistake Berkeley County Museum and Heritage Center for an administrative building and simply bypass it for the park’s snazzy interpretive center. They miss out on a fun examination of the county’s unique stew of heritage.

There’s a replica moonshine still because the county’s swamps once provided cover for hundreds of illicit alcohol-brewing entrepreneurs. There’s an auto racing exhibit, celebrating local driving hero Tiny Lund. There’s a pirate room because the Cooper and Santee rivers were once major shipping lanes that drew brigands. And to counter those who drank too much, or drove too fast, or took what wasn’t theirs, the museum devotes two rooms to the history of the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office, complete with a chain gang ball-and-chain and a hollowed-out hymnal used to sneak items into jail.

The museum’s most prominent section details the accomplishments of the area’s most famous resident – Francis Marion. The Revolutionary War hero bedeviled British forces by attacking them with his small group of volunteers and then retreating into thick, forested wetlands, earning the Swamp Fox nickname. Like most of the exhibits, it dispenses history without making the message seem stuffy.

That’s ideal for the nearly 15,000 school children who stream through the museum each year on field trips. But they aren’t the only targets for the message. “Berkeley County is growing tremendously,” says Museum Director Michael Coker. “We have to reach those people who are transplants.”

The museum operates with two part-time employees and a core of volunteers. Santee Cooper, a state-owned power company, donated the land for the museum in 1992 and helped the Berkeley County Historical Society get the operation started. Santee Cooper still provides a portion of admission to the canal park to help pay bills for the museum, which also gets some funds from Berkeley County government.

Coker makes minor changes so repeat visitors find something new. However, big changes are in the works. About a mile from the museum, the intact earthworks of Revolutionary War-era Fort Fair Lawn have been protected by the Lord Berkeley Conservation Trust. Plans call for interpretation at the museum about the British fort, built in part to secure the Cooper River shipping channel. A hiking trail will link the museum to the fort.

Becoming a Revolutionary War battlefield site “will completely change the dynamic for us,” Coker says.

Edisto Island Museum

At the south end of Charleston County, Edisto Island Museum is hyper-local, focusing on the history of its namesake sea island and adjacent barrier islands. “We don’t have to compete with Charleston,” says Museum Director Gretchen Smith. “There’s enough rich history here. At one time, there were 64 plantations on Edisto Island.”


Life’s Utensils. The remains of a former slave cabin at Edisto Island Museum come to life with the items integral to living both before and after freedom. Photo by Joey Holleman, S.C. Sea Grant Consortium.

That sentiment and those plantations were the building blocks when the Edisto Island Historic Preservation Society opened the museum in a donated house in 1986. When Smith took over as director in 2007, “the white plantation story was told very well,” she says. “Getting the black community involved was our goal because they hadn’t been.”

African-American buy-in has transformed the museum in the past decade. The donation of two former slave cabins from Point of Pines Plantation proved to be pivotal. One was meticulously deconstructed and shipped in 2013 to the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., where curators reconstructed it to anchor the “Slavery and Freedom” exhibit.

The second of the two cabins had suffered irreparable damage on one end, but the other end served as the centerpiece of a 2014 renovation of the museum. The cabin features a wooden door painted blue in the Gullah tradition to stave off haints (ghosts), and inside are artifacts of daily life, such as sweetgrass baskets, dishes, and a baby’s high chair. Nearby is a diorama of a typical plantation slave street, built with recycled wood from the half of the cabin that couldn’t be saved. Cabin wood also was utilized in several display cases.

The museum also features items donated by the Hutchinson family. Henry Hutchinson, born into slavery in 1860, led efforts to increase land ownership among African Americans in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The house he built in 1885 is on the National Register of Historic Places, and museum officials have worked to have it stabilized and restored. The museum also is helping compile oral histories from elderly black residents.

“The tourists come, but we really want to be relevant to the local community,” Smith says. And locals back the museum, which gets no government support. Money is brought in through memberships and a fall tour of plantations, churches, and graveyards. Smith suspects many of the 700 members renew each year because they want to ensure tickets to the tour, which always sells out.

Colleton County Museum and Farmers Market

The Colleton County Museum and Farmers Market in Walterboro is unique. In addition to a standard museum and a farmers market shed, the facility features the Colleton Commercial Kitchen, a business incubator for producers of local food products. Federal grant funding for the farmers market and kitchen allowed county leaders to move the museum from Walterboro’s tiny former jail back in 2011.

Now, the museum entrance is through a café, where the counter is filled with sweets, sandwiches, and salads made on-site. Soft jazz plays through the speakers, and diners eat at several tables.

Matt Mardell, the facility’s director, estimates less than half of the 21,000 visitors who came through the front doors in 2018 toured the museum. Locals come for a quiet place to eat and converse. An event space in the facility rents out most weekends, for parties, family reunions, and weddings.

The facility has grown “from being just a museum to being a center of the community,” Mardell says. “You can start a business here, get your history here, meet a friend for coffee. You can even get married here.”


Celebrating Music. A jukebox, a piano, and high school band uniforms help tell the stories of local residents at Colleton County Museum in Walterboro, South Carolina. Photo by Grace Beahm Alford.

The museum portion of the facility is packed with prehistoric bison bones and sharks’ teeth, Native- American pottery, antique farm equipment, and displays on plantations, railroads, churches, stores, and schools that have been its lifeblood through the years.

Special attention is given to the Ashepoo-Combahee-Edisto (ACE) Basin, the 350,000-acre region that encompasses most of the county. This property’s transfiguration from a haven for Native-American hunters to the basis for wealth of a plantation society and finally to an important refuge for wildlife in a fast-growing coastal region forms the narrative of the museum.

Another theme is the role of enslaved Africans on plantations and their importance to the community through subsequent generations. The highlight is the display about the World War II Tuskegee Airmen, who got their start at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and did final flight training at Walterboro Army Airfield.

The museum is county-run, and its operation is paid by tax dollars supplemented by sales at the café and rental space fees. “We’re like the creative department of the county,” Mardell says.


Small Town Life. Matt Mardell, director of the Colleton County Museum, left a career in architecture in the Beaufort area to
move to Walterboro and join the museum staff. Photo by Grace Beahm Alford.

Morris Center for Lowcountry Heritage

At the intersection of U.S. 17 and Main Street in the Jasper County town of Ridgeland, the Morris Center for Lowcountry Heritage has been an entity for only four years, but the buildings have been integral to the community for generations.

The replica green Sinclair gas pumps out front are a nod to the front section of the museum’s past as a filling station dating back to 1937. The back two sections most recently were an antique store, but they also have served as a grocery store and a funeral home. The motley assortment of buildings was transformed into a museum thanks to local history buff Danny Morris, who bequeathed funds for that purpose when he died in 2005.

It is one of the more unusual celebrations of local heritage in coastal South Carolina. The young museum has no collection, and its leaders don’t long for one. They like the idea of staging focused, temporary exhibits in the main exhibit space, which is the garage area of the former gas station.

The “Living by the Rails” exhibit, open through April 2019, is professionally curated with artifacts on loan from other museums and local residents and details the impact of the Charleston and Savannah Railway line that runs through the community. Like many small towns in South Carolina, Ridgeland might not exist if not for its rail connection.

In the second of the museum’s three connected buildings, there’s a small diorama of the Battle of Honey Hill, when Union troops tried to cut off Confederate rail supplies as Union Gen. William T. Sherman’s forces arrived in Savannah. Confederate forces turned back the Union effort at Honey Hill on November 30, 1864, but that loss hardly slowed Sherman’s march north to Columbia and beyond.

Museum Director Tamara Herring’s mission is to get more community residents into the facility. “When you don’t go to museums, you don’t feel like you belong in museums,” Herring says. “So I wanted to invite school groups to come here. I want people to appreciate the fact this place is in Ridgeland.”


Building Community. Tamara Herring, director of the Morris Center for Lowcountry Heritage in Ridgeland, South Carolina, is working to incorporate the new facility into the daily life of the town. Photo by Grace Beahm Alford.

With that in mind, the third building, which includes a professional-grade kitchen, is designated for programming and public rental. It has been used for lectures, yoga sessions, and cooking classes.

About three miles from I-95, Morris Center attracts a few tourists. Its main audience, however, is residents of Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton, and Jasper counties. While admission is free, fees for programs and rental of the event space help pay the bills.

“In a short time, it’s become part of the fabric of the community,” says Dennis Averkin, Ridgeland’s town administrator.

Santa Elena History Center

In Beaufort, most first-time visitors to Santa Elena History Center walk in with few notions about the earliest European settlements in North America and walk out more informed. Because the sites of the Charlesfort and Santa Elena settlements on Parris Island have been occupied by the U.S. Marine Corps for the past century, they haven’t received full-blown tourism treatment like early settlements at Saint Augustine, Florida, or Jamestown, Virginia. They probably never will, but that doesn’t change the history.

“We like to say children born at Santa Elena were 40 years old when Pocahontas met John Smith,” says Megan Morris, director of the history center, in reference to the famous couple who met when English settlers first landed at Jamestown.

Charlesfort, a short-lived French settlement (1562-63) on Parris Island, predated Saint Augustine, which was founded in 1565 and calls itself the longest continuously occupied settlement on the North American mainland. Santa Elena was founded in 1566 near the Charlesfort site by the Spanish, who also brought women and children. It was considered the Spanish capital of the New World mainland when founder Pedro Menendez moved his family there from 1571-1574. The settlement lasted more than two decades, until 1587.


Educating Visitors. The Santa Elena History Center in Beaufort, South Carolina, features a three-dimensional scale model of Fort San Marcos, built by European settlers on Parris Island in 1577. Photo by Joey Holleman, S.C. Sea Grant Consortium.

“People finish [touring the museum] and they say ‘I had no idea!’ ” says Morris, who grew up in Beaufort and knew little of the Santa Elena story herself back then.

That’s why local history enthusiasts created Santa Elena History Center, which opened in April 2016 in a former federal courthouse. In those expansive quarters, the story of the New World from Christopher Columbus’ voyage in 1492 through the founding of Jamestown in 1607 comes alive using text panels, reproduction artifacts, and video presentations.

Youngsters can touch ancient pottery and Native-American projectile points. They can try on a conquistador helmet. They can test their archaeological skills at a dig table. (Actual artifacts from Charlesfort and Santa Elena digs can be found at the Parris Island Museum at the Marine Corps Training Depot, which does a first-class job of documenting the island’s past as well as the Marine history.)

In tourist-oriented downtown Beaufort, the Santa Elena History Center draws about 60 percent of its visitors from outside the Beaufort region, Morris says. In order to draw more locals, the nonprofit Santa Elena Foundation, which operates the center, teams with local entities on many programs and events, such as a partnership with University of South Carolina Beaufort on a Santa Elena Scholar Series.

“We’re not only here to drive people’s awareness and understanding,” Morris says, “we also want to help America’s First Century fully emerge from untranslated archives and uncovered artifacts.”

Heyward House/Garvin-Garvey Freedman’s Cottage

House museums serve as an important subset in the history field, using stories imbued in their structures to represent the greater history of their communities. The Heyward House Museum in Bluffton is a classic example.

Built in 1841 by enslaved Africans as a summer home for plantation owner John Cole, it is one of a handful of pre-Civil War structures in town. An example of Carolina Farmhouse-style architecture, the structure remained a private home until 1998, when the Bluffton Historical Society purchased it.

The Heyward House Museum now also serves as the town’s welcome center. Artifacts and furniture in four downstairs rooms and a shotgun hallway include Native-American pottery, a fainting couch for women overcome by heat, and a cannonball bed. Outbuildings on the site include a cabin where house servants lived and a kitchen from the period when cooking was done apart from the main house.

Visitors are encouraged to take a walking tour of Bluffton to view other historic structures, most of which are not open to the public. One extraordinary structure visitors can enter offers a powerful counterpoint to the Heyward House. The Garvin-Garvey Freedman’s Cottage features few artifacts, but its unadorned wooden walls and stories told by interpreter Constance Martin-Witter speak volumes.


Special Place. Cyrus Garvey, only recently freed from slavery, used his carpentry skills and salvaged materials to build an impressive waterfront home in Bluffton, South Carolina in 1870. Photo by Joey Holleman, S.C. Sea Grant Consortium.

Martin-Witter tells visitors about Cyrus Garvey. While enslaved, Garvey gained the respect of plantation owner Joseph Baynard. Like many of the elite of the period, Baynard kept a home in Bluffton away from his plantation. His house overlooking the May River, like most of the town’s structures, was burned by Union forces on June 4, 1863. After the war, Baynard opted to live in Savannah, Georgia.

With Baynard’s permission, Garvey built a house on the Bluffton property in 1870, using wood scrounged from burned buildings throughout town. A two-story structure with four rooms around a central hallway, it was grand compared to most of the freedman’s cottages built by former slaves after the war. Garvey prospered in the Reconstruction era and in 1890 bought the riverfront lot from Baynard.

The land and home stayed in his family until 1961. The Bluffton Oyster Company, which has a shucking house next door, bought the property in 1970, and the Beaufort County Open Land Trust acquired it in 2001. The house itself had been ignored and was near collapse, but history buffs lobbied to save it. The renovation of the house, a joint project of Beaufort County and the Town of Bluffton, cost more than $400,000. It was opened to the public in 2017.

Martin-Witter is an ideal guide to the building. She grew up and taught school in Detroit, Michigan, but her family’s roots in Bluffton go back more than 200 years. Her ancestors were friends with Cyrus Garvey’s family. (The family name is listed as Garvin in some records, thus the dual name for the house.)

“The reason why I’m here is I want you to understand the power of relationships, of perseverance, and the belief in a higher power,” Martin- Witter says. “This house is tangible evidence of that power.”

She intersperses the building’s history with her own family’s story. Held back by the lack of educational resources, many from her father’s generation fled for northern states. Late in life, many were drawn back, and their children sometimes followed. Their roots run deep in Lowcountry soil, and they especially appreciate a historical site devoted to that heritage.

“They get real emotional when I’m talking,” Martin-Witter says. “One time when I finished, a woman stood up and put her hand on the wood [of the house’s wall] and started crying.” 


Two Story-Tellers. The wooden planks convey the history of the Garvin-Garvey Freedman’s Cottage in Bluffton, South Carolina, with help from interpreter Constance Martin-Witter. Photo by Joey Holleman, S.C. Sea Grant Consortium.

Filling a Void as the Region Grows

Attendance at history museums and historic sites in the United States peaked in the 1960s and 1970s, a period sparked by attention to the nation’s bicentennial. It’s somewhat incongruous that as fewer people have opted to visit history museums nationally, new small museums keep springing up in coastal South Carolina.

Fielding Freed of Historic Columbia speculates that anomaly has to do with population growth. As more people move to coastal South Carolina, long-time residents work to share the local history with newcomers. It also helps that many of those newcomers are retirees willing to work at the new museums, Freed says.

Without exception, directors cite community pride as the primary reason for establishing these local museums. “The daily life aspect of an area, that’s what 21st  century visitors are interested in,” Freed says. “And you can tell that story in multiple ways.”


Shopping Local. Museums connect with communities by offering regionally produced merchandise in their gift shops, as Charlene Green, foreground, and Zan Coakley of Charleston discovered while checking out the Colleton County Museum.

The facilities featured in this article represent only a portion of the history museums in coastal counties. For instance, Coastal Discovery Museum on Hilton Head Island delves into local history while emphasizing ecology. York W. Bailey Museum on Saint Helena Island focuses on the history of the Penn Center. Dorchester County boasts the Summerville Dorchester Museum in Summerville and the Dorchester County Archives and History Center in Saint George. And the Charleston peninsula is packed with history-related facilities – including a brand new S.C. Historical Society Museum in the very old (1826) Fireproof Building – with the long-planned International African American Museum scheduled to open in 2021.

The Charleston Museum was the first, and for a long time was one of the few choices in coastal South Carolina. Carl Borick, director of the Charleston Museum, sees the newcomers as complements not competition. The number of school groups taking field trips there hasn’t dropped even as the number heading to smaller museums has risen. Local museums are filling a new niche.

“Are there too many new museums?” Borick says. “Maybe, but we know that heritage tourism continues to thrive and grow in the Charleston area and across South Carolina, so perhaps it can support this proliferation.”

Randy Akers has watched the growth in museums as executive director of the not-for-profit S.C. Humanities since 1988, and it makes perfect sense to him.

“I do believe that as we ended another century, there were people and places and events we wanted to remember: oral histories of World War II veterans in our community, photos and history of the civil rights movement, increased interest in Gullah-Geechee/African-American heritage,” Akers says. “There is always some nostalgia. Museums remember our textile heritage, our tobacco heritage, our rice heritage. There has been an interest in genealogy, which helps people think of small community museums.

“People also began to notice that visitors and tourists come to a place in part to find something new. So they will visit shops and restaurants, and also museums. What better place for tourists to learn about a community?”

Reading and Websites

Berkeley County Museum and Heritage Center

Colleton County Museum and Farmers Market

Edisto Island Museum

Garvin-Garvey Freedman’s Cottage

Georgetown County Museum

Gullah Museum

Heyward House Museum

Horry County Museum

Morris Center for Lowcountry Heritage

Rice Museum

Richman-Abdou, Kelly. “How Museums Evolved Over Time from Private Collections to Modern Institutions.” April 1, 2018.

S.C. Federation of Museums

S.C. Maritime Museum

Santa Elena History Center

Starn, Randolph. “A Historian’s Brief Guide to New Museum Studies.” The American Historical Review, February 2005.

The Village Museum