Charleston’s Museum Mile attractions fighting back after Irma scare

The model of the H.L. Hunley submarine outside the Charleston Museum draws a curious crowd last week. Dave Munday/Staff

Despite the hit from the threat of Hurricane Irma in September, the curators of downtown Charleston’s historic attractions expect to finish the year on budget.

The Charleston Museum gets about half its $2 million annual budget from ticket sales, according to director Carl Borick. As Irma’s path threatened Charleston as the weekend of Sept. 8 approached, ticket sales totaled about $500, compared to about $1,800 for a typical Thursday-Friday in September. The museum closed at mid-day Friday.

Irma swept through Charleston as a tropical storm three days later. The following Saturday, ticket sales were less than $1,000, compared to about $2,500 on a typical Saturday in September.

The opening of a new natural history gallery at the museum the weekend of Sept. 23 brought in a lot of new visitors and helped make up for some of the losses, Borick said. Overall, sales for the month were down about 18 percent.

But add in the total solar eclipse that passed over Charleston the previous month and the math changes. The museum had an especially busy August with all the activities around the eclipse. Basically, the gains in August made up for the losses in September.

Borick hopes to finish the year with about 120,000 ticket sales. That would surpass last year’s sales of 109,000. But it wouldn’t come close to the crowds the Dinomation exhibit drew in the 1980s.

Despite the attraction of mechanical dinosaurs, Borick said history remains the city’s chief selling point. Even the cuisine is billed as food with a history.

"Visitors often say this is where you should start before anywhere else," he said. "The museum ties all the stories together."

Although Charleston is best known as the place where the Civil War started, Borick is most fascinated with the Revolutionary War and still treasures his childhood copy of "The Golden Book of the American Revolution."

The museum also owns the historic Heyward Washington House and Joseph Manigault House. They’re part of what’s marketed as the "Museum Mile," a stretch of Meeting Street that’s a little over a mile with "six museums, five nationally important historic houses, four scenic parks and a Revolutionary War powder magazine, as well as numerous historic houses of worship and public buildings including the Market and City Hall," according to the website.

Borick is also chairman of the Museum Mile. Overall visitation was down 30 percent in September, he said.

A group from North Charleston High School waits outside the Gibbes Museum of Art to see the Pan American exhibit last week. Dave Munday/Staff

The Gibbes Museum of Art is part of the Museum Mile. Its board will discuss the impact of Irma and projections for the rest of the year this week, she said.

The museum sold 2,900 general-admission tickets in September and October, down from 3,500 the same two months last year. But when you add August, the numbers are about the same.

"Because of the eclipse, the financial hit isn’t as bad as it could have been," she said.

Still, it was the third year in a row the city’s tourist industry was slammed by storms. It might be time to start including a couple weeks lost to storm threats in the fall in the budget projections, she said.

"We will probably start creating some sort of additional emergency fund that deal with natural disasters," she said. "Given the last three years, it’s taking its toll."

The Gibbes has always been a popular wedding venue, and October is Charleston’s busiest month for weddings. Irma didn’t cause any wedding cancellations at the venue, Mack said.

Charleston is known for its history, but the Gibbes has also always been an epicenter of contemporary art and exploration of current issues as well. It was the venue for the unveiling of Solomon Guggenheim’s collection of modern art in 1936, which brought international attention to Charleston. As the city’s tourism base has increasingly expanded beyond the regional to the national and international, the Gibbes has continued its emphasis on the contemporary along with the historical.

"Visitors are interested in knowing about the history, but they’re also interested in knowing about the current creative culture and what is driving that today," said Mack, who has been with the Gibbes since 1981 and director since 2008.

Charleston is also gaining a reputation as a city with a growing technology industry, she said.

"Young people are moving here for tech opportunities, and they have friends who come and visit here," she said. "They’re expecting to see innovation, and that’s a theme that we are driving at the Gibbes very solidly."

The Gibbes also encourages artistic themes of conservation, environment, social justice, health and wellness.

"I think that the lore of Charleston is complex, and I think it’s been that way for the majority of the 20th century, and the role of art is a really big role, because it helps to sort of work through the complexities of our community," Mack said. "That’s why I believe in art so much. It’s a way to create really wonderful conversations."

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