Today, the Library of Congress Bi-Metallic Ten-Dollar Coin remembers the first museum in the colonies begun 244 years ago.
Though it did not open to the public until 1824, it began its existence in early 1773.
Some of its history can be found in the Proceedings of the American Association of Museums of July 6-9, 1915:
A CONTRIBUTION TO EARLY MUSEUM HISTORY IN AMERICA
In this paper are assembled for the first time in consecutive order some of the results of a series of investigations which have recovered many long-forgotten facts in the history of our oldest museum.
These facts are presented here as a contribution to the history, as yet unwritten, of the development of museums in America, and in the hope that the story they tell may prove of general interest.
Our oldest museum was established by the Charles-Town Library Society in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1773, just twenty years after the founding of the British Museum.
Not only is the Charleston Museum our oldest existing museum but, as far as present knowledge goes, it is the first public museum established in America.
To the Charles-Town Library Society is thus due the credit of conceiving the museum idea, or at least of first giving it formal expression.
The prospectus published by the society in the South Carolina Gazette (Powell’s) of March 22 and April 5 and 12, 1773, and in the South Carolina Gazette and Country Journal of March 30 and April 6 in the same year is so remarkable a document that I venture to quote it in full:
The Library Society, Of Charles-Town,
Taking into their Consideration, the many Advantages and great Credit that would result to this Province, from a full and accurate natural history of the same, and being desirous to promote so useful a Design, have appointed a Committee of their Number to collect and prepare Materials for that Purpose.
That this may be done in the most complete and extensive Manner, they do now invite every Gentleman who wishes well to the Undertaking, especially those who reside in the Country, to co-operate with them in the Advancement of this Plan.
For this Purpose, the Society would Request such Gentlemen to procure and send to them, all the natural Productions, either Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral, that can be had in their several Bounds, with Accounts of the various Soils, Rivers, Waters, Springs, &c. and the most remarkable Appearances of the different Parts of the Country.
Of the Animal Tribe, they would wish to have every Species, whether Terrestrial or Aquatic, viz. Quadrupedes, Birds, Fishes, Reptiles, Insects, Worms, &c. with the best Accounts of their Customs and natural Habitudes.
Of Vegetables, they will thankfully receive every Kind, from the loftiest Tree in the Forest, to the smallest Plant of the Fields. – – – – A complete Specimen of any Tree or Plant, will be two small Branches of each, one having the Flower in full Blossom, and the other the ripe Fruit. At the same Time the Society beg to be furnished with the best Accounts that can be given of the Uses and Virtues, either in Agriculture, Commerce, or Medicine, of which such Tree or Plant is possessed – – – the Soil in which it most commonly grows, the Season in which it flowers, and when it bears its Fruit.
They would be glad to be furnished also with Specimens of all the various Fossils, Minerals, and Ores, the different Soils, Earths, Clays, Marles, Stones, Sands, Shells, &c. the Productions of this Province, with the best Accounts of their several Natures, Qualities, Situations and Uses.
The Society, in order that this Design may be carried into immediate Execution, have fitted up a Museum for the Reception and Preservation of Specimens of these several natural Productions, and have appointed Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and Thomas Heyward, jun. Esquires, with Alexander Baron, and Peter Fayssoux, Physicians, in Charles-Town, to receive them; to whom all Letters of Intelligence, Specimens, &c. are to be addressed.
And they flatter themselves, that the evident Utility of the Plan, will engage such a Number of public spirited Gentlemen to assist them, that they will soon be enabled to make a considerable Progress. They will not only gratefully receive all such Communications, and apply them in the best Manner they can for the above Purposes, but the Names of such shall be recorded as Promoters of, and Contributors to, so useful a Work.
Any Expence that may be incurred by forwarding Letters of Intelligence, Specimens, &c. to Town, the Society will chearfully repay.
By order of the Committee, John Murray, Chairman.
It would be hard today to express more perfectly the purposes of a local museum than was done in this prospectus one hundred and forty-two years ago.
Practically the only phase of museum activity as we now conceive it which is not included in this advertisement is the educational work with public schools, and it must be remembered that in those days there were no public schools.
Like most human activities, this museum long failed to realize completely the ambitions of its founders, but when we remember that the year which gave it birth was followed immediately by the long ravages of the Revolutionary War we can only wonder that the integrity of the museum was maintained and the collections increased during this trying period.
The article continued to include trials (fires) and successes (the longevity of several historical contributions) of the museum.
From the museum’s web site:
Founded in 1773 and commonly regarded as “America’s First Museum,” The Charleston Museum is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, accredited by the American Alliance of Museums.
Inspired in part by the creation of the British Museum, the Museum was established by the Charleston Library Society on the eve of the American Revolution and its early history was characterized by association with distinguished South Carolinians and scientific figures including Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Reverend John Bachman and John J. Audubon.
First opened to the public in 1824, the Museum developed prominent collections, which Harvard scientist Louis Aggasiz declared in 1852 to be among the finest in America. Operations were temporarily suspended due to the Civil War, but began again shortly afterward. Progressively acquired since the late 18th century, the Museum’s collections now represent the most comprehensive assemblage of South Carolina materials in the nation. Focusing on the South Carolina Lowcountry, modern collecting emphases include natural history, historical material culture and both documentary and photographic resources.
The Library of Congress Bi-Metallic Ten-Dollar Coin shows with an image of the Charleston Museum, circa 1936.