Legislators considering a plan to display the Confederate battle flag that was removed from the State House grounds last summer pitched another idea Wednesday. Instead of spending $3.7 million to expand the S.C. Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum to accommodate the flag and other Civil War displays, why not move the museum?
Rather than pay for a new room in the old textile mill that houses the Relic Room and the State Museum, it might be more cost-effective to move the museum to a more visible and tourist-friendly location that would boost visitation and museum revenues, members of a key House subcommittee said.
Last year, the museum, located in the back of the mill building on Gervais Street, attracted 24,700 visitors, with about one-third of them children who enter the museum for free. That compares to the State Museum’s approximately 181,000 visitors.
Ticket sales for the Relic Room generated about $100,000 of the military museum’s $826,000 budget last year, with taxpayers picking up the rest.
“You’re not getting the traction you need,” said state Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee’s Transportation, Regulatory and Cultural Subcommittee. “Seems to me you’re in the wrong location.”
The museum houses military artifacts from the American Revolution to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Limehouse suggested that the Confederate artifacts be moved to the North Charleston museum that houses the Confederate submarine CSS Hunley, or the whole Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum could be moved to a new location in Columbia that would draw more visitors.
More visitors could make the museum self-sufficient and more of a magnet for private donations and corporate sponsorships, he said.
“It would be a perfect match with the Hunley,” said Limehouse, who noted that many of Charleston’s more than 6 million annual visitors go to the Holy City to see historical attractions such as Fort Sumter, where the Civil War’s first shots were fired. “The audience is already there,” he said.
Limehouse also suggested that the museum’s name be changed from the vague “relic room” to something more consumer-friendly, such as the S.C. Museum of the Confederacy. “That would pull tourists off of I-95,” he said. “I would go.”
Subcommittee member Chip Huggins, R-Lexington, suggested that a new museum could be pitched to individual counties — particularly on well-traveled interstate highways — that would likely compete for a tourist draw. “The key is identifying the best location,” he said. “It’s hidden now.”
Relic Room director Allen Roberson said he didn’t have a strong opinion about a move. “We’re a state agency. We’ll go where they tell us.”
The Relic Room is the state’s third-oldest museum, founded in 1896. It is packed with flags from the Civil War as well as artifacts from each war since the American Revolution. Roberson estimated about half of the museum’s artifacts are in storage because there is no room to display them. “We’re busting at the seams,” he said. “We need to expand our collections space and develop some program space.”
The military museum has no room to properly display the modern flag as outlined by the Legislature, he said. The flag was taken from the State House grounds in July after the murder of nine black parishioners of the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
The proposed $3.7 million expansion plan – which has to be approved and funded by the Legislature – would utilize a 4,600-square-foot second-story room directly above the Relic Room in the old textile mill. The expansion would increase the relic room’s size by roughly a third.
The plan calls for a flag exhibit that would include a case that fronts a wall of electronic tiles displaying the names of all 24,000 S.C. Confederate troops killed in the Civil War. It would also be placed with other appropriate artifacts from the war.
The new room would also have classroom and event space that could be rented to raise revenue.
The plan also calls for the entrance to the Relic Room to be expanded farther into the mill’s soaring atrium, making event space available and allowing for a new, direct stairway to the second-story expansion. It would also enhance visibility to state museum visitors, Roberson said.
The annual operating budget for the expansion would be $234,172, most of which would go back to the state as rent and utilities.
In addition to moving the museum to boost visibility, subcommittee member Joe Neal, D-Richland, suggested that the museum’s staff do more to raise private funds through donations and corporate sponsorships. “This may be an opportunity to build partnerships,” said Neal, who noted that the new room and its displays “almost lends itself to advertising.”
Relic Room Commission Chairman George Dorn of Lexington County said the museum was so understaffed with only four full-time employees that fundraising is a challenge.
Roberson “has his hands full running the museum,” Dorn said. “It takes a lot of time to do foundation work.”
Where would the museum go?
▪ Museum could be moved to a bigger and more visible site in Columbia
▪ Confederate artifacts could be paired with the Hunley submarine at its North Charleston museum
▪ Individual counties could compete to attract the museum, which would add a tourism draw