FEATURE ‌ Pushing Paper 

Charleston's little-visited Karpeles Manuscript Museum refuses to be ignored

click to enlarge Charlie Frohne, director Peter McShea, and Roy Smith tend the Karpeles Museum's many manuscripts in a former church at Spring and Coming streets
  • Charlie Frohne, director Peter McShea, and Roy Smith tend the Karpeles Museum's many manuscripts in a former church at Spring and Coming streets
Disney
Karpeles Manuscript Library
On view through September 30
Free
68 Spring St., 853-4651

What does the humble son of a Minnesota bus driver do if he finds himself with more money than he knows what to do with? Instead of doing what any normal, reasonable person would — blow it all on babes, booze, and nose candy -- David Karpeles did something refreshingly different with his enormous real estate earnings.

Inspired by his kids' fascination with original manuscripts, Karpeles built up a private collection of historically important documents. Soon, no garage could hold the hoard and he opened a Manuscript Library Museum in his home town of Duluth. As his real estate earnings grew, so did the collection; Karpeles now has nine museum sites around the country, including one right here on the corner of Spring and Coming streets.

The canny Karpeles chose the high Roman Revival-style former Spring Street Methodist Church for his South Carolina library. It's an impressive, 200-year-old building with plenty of light and space, still with its original pews and pulpit. Instead of just packing the church to the rafters with yellowing scraps of paper, the archivists have carefully spaced out the exhibits and integrated them with their surroundings.

The Constitution of the Confederate States of America, for example, hangs in a frame above a faulty old heater. A letter to Martin Luther King from Rosa Parks is displayed next to a reproduced Emancipation Proclamation amendment on a table before the pulpit. The touring shows that are the central focus of the museum are minimal, rarely involving more than 25 display cases, so there's little chance of visitors getting overwhelmed.

Did we say visitors? The Karpeles Museum seems to be a place that everyone's vaguely aware of but rarely goes to. "People aren't exactly beating at the gates," says Associate Director Roy Smith, a gnomically genial guardian of the museum's collection. "We get some out-of-towners visiting and people staying at the local hostel. But we're not an amusement, and we're away from the tourist crush."

What was an asset during the Civil War — when the church doubled as a hospital, located out of artillery range — has assured that life is awfully quiet for the latest inhabitants. But Smith is optimistic, thanks to the area's gentrification. "Spring is happening," he smiles, adding that the museum will survive whether the public packs it or not. Karpeles has even made provisions in his will so that his collection will continue to be exhibited after his death.

While the Santa Barbara-based organizers accept that visiting levels aren't exactly through the vaulted roof, that doesn't mean they don't make their touring shows as accessible as a bunch of old scrolls can be. The Charleston branch is currently hosting Disney, one of their most viewer-friendly efforts ever.

Despite the exhibition title, Disney isn't presented in a riot of color and cartoon magic. Only the most hardcore Mouseketeer is gonna pop his cork over an early, cancelled version of Uncle Walt's will. But there are still plenty of interesting tidbits, including a mortgage agreement for a cash-strapped Mickey Mouse Club, original storyboard art, character sketches, and the blueprints for Fantasyland — a modest little stretch of turf that would eventually become Disneyland.

These pop culture morsels are juxtaposed with some far older cartoons: Ancient Egyptian sandstone carvings of gods and Pharaohs, so delicate that, as Smith ruefully explains, "you could break them with your thumb." By comparing the magical ushabti of Egypt's 18th Dynasty with the magical mouse of Steamboat Willie, the Karpeles suggests a lot about how far civilization has come in 3,000 years.

The remaining space is filled with highlights from Karpeles' vast collection, which, according to Smith, encompasses almost a million pieces. Some choices, like Babe Ruth's 1918 contract and Pope John Paul II's zucchetto cap, seem a little arbitrary; others from the Civil War era have obvious local ties.

A whole lotta love has gone into the preservation and display of these documents, making the museum one of the most philanthropic institutions in the city, great for historically-minded folks who are short a few bucks or looking for a tranquil respite from the sightseeing masses. In fact, it seems like Karpeles picked an out-of-the-way site quite deliberately; hopefully, spring's fix-up won't breach his peace too much.


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