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Laura Bragg (October 9, 1881 – May 16, 1978) was a museum director who became the first woman to run a publicly funded art museum in America when she was named the director of the Charleston Museum in 1920. She later directed the Berkshire Museum in Massachusetts and advised on the reorganization of the Valentine Museum in Virginia. She is also known for developing a widely copied form of traveling museum exhibition for schools called a "Bragg Box."
Laura Mary Bragg was born in Massachusetts on October 9, 1881, one of three children of Rev. Lyman Bragg and Sarah Jane (Klotz) Bragg.:1,6 She spent a few of her earliest years in Mississippi, where her father was a professor at Rust University, a college for freed slaves.:1
At the age of six, Bragg contracted scarlet fever, which left her with progressive hearing loss. Her father consulted on treatment for her at Alexander Graham Bell's Boston school for the deaf. Bragg coped with her partial but incurable hearing loss by learning to lip read and developing an exceptional memory.:6
Up to high school, Bragg was educated at home. She went to high school in New Hampshire and Massachusetts before going on to Simmons College for a degree in library science. She graduated with the college's very first class, in 1906.:1 In a college biology class, she developed an interest in ferns and would later publish an article on the ferns of coastal South Carolina in the American Fern Journal.:20
After college, her first jobs were as a librarian, initially on Orr's Island, Maine, and then briefly at the New York Public Library.:1–2
In 1909, Charleston Museum director Paul Rea (whom Bragg had met in Maine) brought her to Charleston, SC, to be the museum's curator of books and public instruction. She developed the museum's first educational programs and designed installations in the museum's new building. In 1920, Bragg was named director of the Charleston Museum, becoming the first woman in America to run a publicly funded art museum.:2
In 1921, she opened the museum to black visitors on Saturday afternoons, less than four years after the museum's own trustees had put in place a policy denying admission to black people.:2
Bragg also founded the Charleston Free Library during her tenure in the city:2 and was a cofounder of the Poetry Society of South Carolina.
Bragg's directorship brought her into close contact with the Charleston artists and writers who would later be known as forming the Charleston Renaissance, especially Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, DuBose Heyward, John Bennett, and Josephine Pinckney.:67–79
Bragg was devoted to the ideal of public education, and one of her most successful initiatives in Charleston was what became known as "Bragg Boxes" or "Bragg's Boxes." Founded on the idea of bringing the museum to people who, for whatever reason, couldn't come to the museum, the Bragg Boxes were circulating exhibits that were sent out to students in both urban and rural areas beginning in around 1913.:3 Wooden boxes with hinged panels, they opened into "miniature stage sets" or dioramas on either local natural history (green-painted boxes) or cultural history (red-painted boxes).:3 They were accompanied by teaching materials—often developed by Bragg herself—and objects that could be handled by the students.:3 She created over five dozen of these boxes altogether.
Other museums—including the American Museum of Natural History in New York—picked up on this idea and incorporated Bragg Boxes in their own educational outreach programs.:3 It was actually during her subsequent tenure at the Berkshire Museum in Massachusetts that these traveling exhibits gained their name of Bragg Boxes.
In 1924, while still running the Charleston Museum, Bragg was asked to consult on a reorganization of the Valentine Museum in Richmond, Virginia. Four years later, in 1928, the Valentine Museum finally authorized Bragg to start on the proposed reorganization, a process that took two more years to complete.:153,156
Bragg's work in shaping the Charleston Museum earned her a national reputation, and in 1930, industrialist Zenas Marshall Crane induced her to move to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to become director of the Berkshire Museum, which was then little more than a family collection.:3 She was given a free hand to turn the museum into a fully developed educational institution.:156 Diversifying the museum's exhibitions, she doubled attendance in her first year. She also oversaw the transformation of the museum's central courtyard into a sculpture gallery and theater, allowing the museum to host performing arts for the first time.
Bragg's eye for art and visionary thinking is evident from several different aspects of her work at the Berkshire Museum. She inaugurated several ground-breaking and controversial exhibitions of modern art at the museum, and she was the first American museum director to buy and exhibit Alexander Calder's sculptures. In 1932, she organized an important exhibition of Shaker furniture, which was then little known.:3
Bragg never married. She had many romantic friendships with women and several Boston marriages, notably with Hester Gaillard, Belle Heyward, and Helen Gardner McCormack, who became a protege of Bragg's at the Charleston Museum.
Bragg retired from the Berkshire Museum in 1939 and returned to Charleston, where she continued working as an educator. She died there on May 16, 1978.
The main archive of her papers is held by the South Carolina Historical Society. Another archive, consisting chiefly of letters written to Miss Bragg by Chinese military cadets whom she befriended, is held by The Citadel Archives & Museum in Charleston.
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