Photo by Jenn Cady Photography
By Holly Fisher
As director of museum and education for the newly opened South Carolina Historical Society Museum, Heather Reed wants to make history more accessible to the public. In a city like Charleston where tales from the past practically drip from the trees like Spanish moss, she invites visitors to immerse themselves in the museum’s interactive exhibits and discover just how exciting history can be.
In September, the Historical Society opened The Fireproof Building at 100 Meeting St., a National Historic Landmark it renovated and turned into a museum. Heather came on board with the opening, moving to Charleston from Buffalo Gap, Texas, where she’d been the executive director of the Taylor County History Center, showcasing the history of the West Texas frontier.
Always up for an adventure, the Ohio native was eager to be part of 350 years of South Carolina history at The Fireproof Building. As a newcomer to the city, she’s exploring Charleston’s other historic sites, its culture and, of course, its culinary scene.
“Charleston has such a rich, deep history,” she says. “And who doesn’t want to live among these buildings?”
It’s no surprise Heather pursued a career in public history. She grew up in a history-focused family, surrounded by antiques and preserved photographs. Her grandfather immigrated from England in the 1920s and lived in an 1840s home in Wooster, Ohio. Her family spent the summers driving to spots that highlighted American history.
As an immigrant to the United States, Heather says her grandfather wanted to learn what it meant to be an American.
Heather’s background also includes working in national parks, including an internship at Gettysburg National Military Park. That’s where her interest in public history began. She wants everyone to see how history is prominent in everyday life – exactly what the exhibits at The Fireproof Building are designed to illustrate.
The artifacts, photos and maps in the museum aren’t just for researchers or scholars, these materials tell the personal stories of South Carolina’s history. From Colonial times to the Revolutionary and Civil wars and to Reconstruction and the Renaissance, tales from the past are abundant.
“These documents tell those stories in the handwriting of people from the past,” Heather says.
One of her favorite artifacts is a journal in which the writer pauses to document the moment the 1886 Charleston earthquake rattles the ground. “He stops to acknowledge the earthquake. That’s a vernacular history that I love,” she says.
When she first read the journal, Heather says she wondered why he would have chronicled the earthquake in real time, but she realized we do the same thing today. When something big happens, people reach for their phones to record and share it with others.
That realization is one that Heather hopes to share with others – that from 1886 to 2018, people aren’t so different after all.
“So many times, people think history is black and white,” Heather says, “but history isn’t. If I’ve learned anything, it’s made me live in the gray. Nothing is cut and dry and we’re all in this together.”
When you really delve into history, you find incredible stories, she says.
“The courage and risks people took is really empowering,” Heather adds. “I can’t imagine getting on a boat for months [to come here].”
Those kinds of personal stories are what make history more meaningful, especially for children who visit the museum with their family or as part of a school trip.
“For children, if you can connect history with something in their lives, it closes that gap,” Heather says. “It removes the invisible walls between the textbooks.”
Visit The Fireproof Building: 100 Meeting St., Charleston, schistory.org/museum, Hours: 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; 1-4 p.m. Sunday,Tickets: $15 for adults; $12 for military and seniors; $7 for children 5-12. Museum tours are self-guided, and tickets are valid for two consecutive days.