Local museum filled with surprises

  • Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Leslie Cantu/Journal Scene -- A copy of the blueprints for the town’s water distribution system is stored at the Summerville Dorchester Museum. The museum building was constructed as the home for the town’s waterworks. It later housed the police department, then the museum. --

The Summerville Dorchester Museum’s historic plant sale fundraiser was a couple weeks ago. It was pretty much what you’d expect from a plant sale – gardeners searching for azaleas, camellias, gardenias, that sort of thing. And then there was the lady who walked in with a Victorian hair wreath. Victorian ladies between 1850 and 1875 made wreaths out of the hair of their friends and families, an example of the domestic “fancywork” they showcased in their homes. Chris Ohm, curator and director of the museum, said the woman brought the wreath, made by her great-grandmother, to donate to the museum. It’s one of many remarkable artifacts in the tiny building on East Doty Avenue, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. “The museum’s collections are astonishing,” Ohm said. “There’s stuff in here from the 1600’s. It’s just astonishing because you wouldn’t expect that in a little museum.” You might not expect a small yellowed pamphlet, published at the behest of the secession convention, titled “Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union; and the Ordinance of Secession.” The museum has the original glass negative from the 1880’s showing the iconic image of Summerville’s downtown square; records accumulated by local attorney Legare Walker, including wills, plats and deeds of title; scrapbooks, aerial photos and planting records from Westvaco; pottery from local Indian tribes; pottery from the Pine Forest Inn; and more, all of the above in storage for the time being. “If we had more space, we could tell more stories,” Ohm said. He’s been working on a plan with the town to expand the museum into the unused water tank behind the building. He also has dozens of ideas for expanding the museum’s work: more school programs, more public displays at the public libraries, more archeology survey work, more walking tours, more time simply being open for people to wander in. All of that, of course, takes money. “There does need to be a certain amount of willingness to pay the bill,” he said. Ohm said the museum runs on a shoestring budget: $46,465 in 2012. The town contributes $22,500 from its hospitality taxes, and last year the county increased its contribution to $2,500 after several years of funding it at the $1,000 level. County Councilman David Chinnis, though, said he needs to see a real budget from the museum before he agrees to additional funding. Councilman Larry Hargett raised the issue during the county’s budget workshop, telling other council members the museum is in a “dire situation.” “I’m not asking for a raise. I’m asking for the museum to stay open,” Ohm said. The museum has developed a long-term plan in the last few years to ensure it carries on beyond any one person’s term, he said. He doesn’t want the fate of the Cuthbert Museum to befall the Summerville Dorchester Museum: Edmund Cuthbert ran a natural history and culture museum in Town Hall from 1959 until the early 1970’s. But when Town Hall was torn down to make way for a new building – now the “old” part of the Town Hall complex – the museum ceased to be. For 20 years the town was without a museum, until a committee came together in the early 1990’s to retrace Cuthbert’s work. It’s important to remember the town’s and county’s history, he said. “There was a time when Charleston was nothing but rubble and Summerville was a resort. … Summerville has its own identity. It always has,” Ohm said.

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