BY JENNIFFER WARDELL
Clipper Staff Writer
It’s hard not to feel genteel in Charleston, even when there’s no plantation or parasol in sight.
The historic downtown area of this South Carolina city, often called Museum Mile, is a relaxing, refined dip into Southern history. Museum displays are polite but firm, benches line the streets for anyone who wants to rest a spell, and even the most blatantly tourist-focused areas include multiple shops selling fine perfumes and expensive, carefully-fitted hats.
The attitude toward tourists in Charleston is generally one of polite confusion, as if the locals are not entirely certain what you’re doing there. They wish you a pleasant day just the same.
Simple but well-maintained benches appear every few feet in areas with heavy foot traffic, and they seemed to be occupied by an equal mix of locals and tourists.
The Historic Charleston City Market is the major shopping area for tourists. Completed in 1841, the building’s open-air vendor stalls have been filled with salesmen for more than a century. These days, the market offers a variety of crafts, with several vendors focusing on traditional sweetgrass weaving. Many weave right at the market, allowing people to watch a demonstration before purchasing a basket or woven rose.
More permanent shops line the outside of the market. T-shirt shops alternate with stores focused on higher-end products. In the hat shops, the proprietors will help customers find the perfect-fitting fedora or safari hat, and can often accommodate even those who require specialty sizes.
Charleston also has a wide variety of museums. The Confederate Museum, located on one end of the City Market, consists of flat cases of Confederate-era memorabilia largely devoid of background information or displays offering historical context. Run by the South Carolina Ladies Auxiliary, it’s a museum designed specifically for people who already know the area’s story.
More explanation is given at The Charleston Museum, located several blocks north of the Market. Founded in 1773, the museum includes exhibits on everything from the area’s pre-history to Egyptian-themed exhibits from the museums early days. One gallery focuses entirely on locally made silver, including the christening cup used by George Washington.
The most fascinating exhibit is “Civil War Р City Under Siege.” The first shots of the Civil War were fired on a Federal ship entering Charleston Harbor, and the exhibit details both the decisions that led up to those shots and how the city survived the long siege that followed.
Every word about the “War Between the States,” as southerners call it, is told from a distinctly southern perspective. The Confederates are shown as survivors who rebelled against Lincoln’s heavy-handedness, and though slavery isn’t ignored, it gets less space than displays celebrating heroic southerners. One display reprints a large part of a very unflattering editorial about Lincoln.
The entire exhibit takes care not to be offensive, but it’s also unapologetic about its sympathies. History, it turns out, is written by whomever gets their hands on the pen.