SC natural history museum shows distant past

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — Charleston is known for its colorful history from colonial days to the Revolutionary War siege by the British to the first shots of the Civil War. But now visitors can glimpse much further back - billions of years back.

Amid the skeletons of a cave bear, a ground sloth and a giant armadillo at the Natural History Museum at the College of Charleston is a fossil dating to 3.4 billion years ago. All were prized possessions of Mace Brown, a Mount Pleasant businessman who has collected fossils most of his life and donated his entire collection of 3,000 items, appraised at about $1.6 million, to the college.

Early next year, the college will dedicate and name the museum after Brown, who started with a rock collection in middle school and later started collecting fossils.

"It became an obsession and then a passion and now a museum," Brown, retired after a career in investing and financial planning, said Friday. He used to display his fossils at his home and his downtown Charleston office building.

"It just got to the point where 10 or 15 years ago I said I've got to have an endgame for what's going to happen," he said.

His longtime friend is Jim Carew, a geology professor at the college who is now curator of the museum.

"The problem with the college has always been space," said Carew, who worked to bring Brown's collection to the school.

When they first discussed the idea, there was no room on campus for such a museum. But then the college built a new $70 million, 100,000-square-foot building for its School of Math and Sciences, and room was found for the 3,700-square-foot museum on the building's second floor.

The initial museum exhibits were in place when the building was dedicated in April 2010. A second phase of exhibits was finished by early last year, Carew said. A number of items are still displayed on tables so there are more display cases to be built, and there's an adjacent room for expansion in the future.

About 90 percent of the items displayed are fossils of creatures that once would have inhabited South Carolina, although not all were found in the state. The oldest item, from Western Australia, is a stomatolite, a structure formed by bacteria dating to 3.45 billion years ago.

Sharing the collection with the public was important to Brown, who also teaches a class in artifact preservation at the college.

"There are museums around here of many kinds but there is no museum with a commitment to having nice fossils on display," he said. "A lot of museums have a lot of nice fossils in the back for scientists to look at but they don't have a lot of things out that are really high quality."

As for having the named for him, "It's like a dream come true," he said. "This has been a passion and I'm glad it's turned into something everyone can appreciate."