Credit: Charleston Museum
Laura Bragg (1881-1978) was born in Northbridge, Mass. When Bragg was named director of the Charleston Museum in 1920, it was the first time that a woman had been chosen to lead a major American museum. She contributed to the development of the American Association of Museums and was the creator of the concept of “traveling exhibits.”
She came to Charleston in 1909, as a librarian/curator of books and public instruction at the newly built Charleston Museum. This was a position that ran counter to the assigned roles for women at the turn of the 20th century. Women were expected to remain at home with their families while men were expected to operate within the public, administrative domain. Bragg faced and overcame many challenges as an assertive, confident, single (and partially deaf) woman, who was committed to a professional career of educational reform within the museum setting.
She also helped to establish museums in North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and Texas. While in Charleston, she founded the Charleston Free Library. Bragg, who was often described as “ahead of her time,” took bold and innovative steps to make museums accessible to the general public. In 1921 she opened the Charleston Museum to blacks, four years after the trustees had formally restricted admittance to African-Americans to Saturday afternoons. She created the nation’s first traveling exhibits. These “Bragg boxes” were sent to urban and rural schools (both black and white) whose students could not travel to the museum. They became a nationally recognized educational tool. The American Association of Museums adopted her philosophy that museums are educational institutions and that each exhibit should educate children.
In 1931 Bragg left Charleston to organize another museum. After retiring in 1939, she returned to the city and remained there until her death. Her successes helped to pave the way for other women to move into museum careers, especially those at the administrative level.