Laura Bragg, A New Woman: Practicing Progressive Social Reform as a Museum Administrator and Educator

University of South Carolina (1997)

By: Louise Anderson Allen

In Charleston, Bragg was described as a woman ahead of her time, but not a Southern lady because she did not know her place. One proper Charlestonian called Bragg a fresh drink of water in the cultural desert. In Pittsfield, she was called "a flame, a vibrant woman," and was seen as a visionary with the modern art exhibits that caught the attention of the community and the New York art world.

Bragg was the first woman to be named the director of any museum in the United States, and it was the oldest in the country, The Charleston Museum. Bragg's educational program, which sent out traveling school exhibits, "Bragg boxes," and her museum principles earned her national recognition. She also created a network of museum professionals through a course she taught at Columbia University and with her trips throughout the Southeast on behalf of the American Association of Museums. Due to these activities, Bragg was lured back to her home state of Massachusetts, by Z. Marshall Crane, to turn his father's art collection into an educational institution.

In Charleston and in Pittsfield, Bragg made the museum attractive to both the ordinary citizen and the culturally elite. She used modern art as a teaching tool to broaden horizons and at the same time, she brought national attention to The Berkshire Museum with contemporary art exhibitions. Bragg saw museums as democratic educational institutions, places of discovery and learning. She believed that if people could not come to the museum she would send the museum to them. Her traveling school exhibits were sent out to urban schools and then to those in remote areas of South Carolina and Massachusetts. As educators and museum administrators learned of their success, the exhibits reached children in Richmond, San Antonio, Rochester, Kalamazoo, and in Wake County, North Carolina.

This critical biography is grounded in feminist theory, and is both interpretative and descriptive of Bragg's life. The study emphasizes her years as a museum administrator, from 1909 through 1939, and includes only those other experiences and/or individuals that might have influenced her philosophy of life and education. It illuminates Bragg's contributions, setting them within the context of the times. Her success was tied to no man. It was hers alone. Bragg was a New Woman, who accomplished what early feminists fought for: full political, social, and economic equality for herself on her own terms.