Savannah, GA

Three Unique Savannah Museums Worth Visiting

Rene Cizio

Three unique Savannah Telfair museums will take you on an art, history and architecture tour of the city from its beginning to the modern day. The best part? It’s one price for all three.

Many people who visit Savannah are familiar with the Telfair Academy. That’s where you’ll find the famous “Bird Girl” statue as depicted on the cover of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” by John Berendt. The book and subsequent movie caused Savannah tourism to increase off the charts in the 1990s and it hasn’t stopped since.

Many people don’t know that the Telfair Museum is one of three museums. With your ticket, you receive entry into all three museums, good for one week.

  1. Telfair Academy
  2. The Jepson Center
  3. The Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters

Two Savannah Telfair museums – the Telfair Academy and Jepson Center – are across the street from each other. The third, the Owens-Thomas House is three squares away but within a 10-minute walk.

1. TELFAIR ACADEMY

Of the three Savannah Telfair Museums, this is the one where I saw people waiting outside in the morning for it to open, but that may be because they, like me, thought it opened at 9 am when it actually opens at 10 am.

Famed Architect William Jay designed this neoclassical Regency-style home in 1819. Yes, this massive museum was once just a humble home to Alexander Telfair. In 1886 it was the first public art museum in the south and the first United States museum founded by a woman.

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When I look at a “house” like this I can’t help but ask: Why was I born so poor? I’ve traveled in the south extensively, so the size of these old southern homes shouldn’t shock me, but my goodness. I just can’t get over it.

Inside, you can download an app with a step-by-step audio guide that takes you through the entire house … er museum. The tour begins in one of the double drawing rooms with a story about the original slave-trading family and how they got so rich. Hint: It was slavery. They were also great patrons of the arts.

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Alongside the entry, hall are splendid period rooms with all the luxury you can imagine. Each contains enough porcelain, crystal, fine wood, fibers, musical instruments, sculpture and art to sustain several families for a few lifetimes.

Downstairs is a ballroom with large-scale sculptures, paintings, and an old basement kitchen. Up two flights of massive marble stairs in the center of the house, much of the entire ceiling is glass. If they had bedrooms in this house, I can’t imagine where they might have been.

BIRD GIRL AT THE TELFAIR ACADEMY

The museum showcases a variety of 19th- and 20th-century American and European art and sculpture and three 19th-century period rooms. However, the main reason I suspect most people visit, myself included, is “Bird Girl.”

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Upstairs are four galleries filled with Savannah-themed art and artists’ works. Bird Girl, a sculpture made in 1936 by Sylvia Shaw Judson, is in a far corner with other displays specific to Bonaventure Cemetery, her original home. After the book’s success, so many people went to the cemetery to see the statue they needed to move it to protect the figure and the grounds.

The museum was quiet, and it was just she and I. Though they’ve made this room look like her old home, she seemed supremely bored on her perch, stuck forever holding two bowls she can never set down.

You can read about her and Bonaventure Cemetery’s history on the walls. It was, in my opinion, as a taphophile, the best room in the house.

Fun fact: Bonaventure means “good fortune.”

I also learned that the artist created six “Bird Girls” the others all in private collections. Looking closely at her bowls, you will see she is actually a fountain. There are slots for water to flow out.

2. JEPSON CENTER

The Jepson Center is a museum of contemporary and modern art, exhibits and design. It includes the work of American artists, including Roy Lichtenstein, Jeff Koons, Cecily Brown, and others.

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The modern building opened in 2006 and is made up of windows flanked by exhibition rooms along the edges. It houses a surprising mix of styles and formats, including photographs, lithographs, digital art displays, and art installations.

There was a sound suit by Nick Cave, whom I discovered in Detroit several years ago and was happy to find again here. They also displayed an incredibly excellent photo collection from Bruce Davidson: “Face to Face” includes nearly 60 photographs and those of the circus performers are stunning.

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Another intriguing presentation was from 19th-century artist James Jacques-Joseph Tissot. His prints “Terra Incognita” are an exhibition of works on paper that intermingle real life and fiction with a story and images. The museum did an excellent job of showing that.

WILLIAM O. GOLDING

My favorite happy find was the artist William O. Golding, with a great story. A captain shanghaied (kidnapped) him as a young boy near the Savannah River and put him to work on a merchant ship in the late 1880s. He only went to school until second grade, lived his entire life on ships, and didn’t make it back to Savannah for 50 years. Once he did, in the 1930s, he was a patient at the United States Marine Hospital in Savannah, where he told his story through colored pencil and crayon drawings.

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The isn’t much documented of Golding’s actual travels. He based his drawing on memory, imagination, and sailors’ lore. The museum displays 72 of his works created between 1932 through 1939, during his time as a patient in Savannah.

When I first walked into the room, I was confused by what I saw because it was so unusual. It looked at first glance like children’s drawings. On closer inspection, I could see that the boats and locations were detailed and specific. While the artistry wasn’t minute in its precision, it was exacting in its storytelling. I sat for a long time in that room and even bought a book about the exhibit.

I loved it because it’s a fabulous story and because he managed to tell it all. Golding had little means and almost no education, but he bought dime-store paper and crayons to tell his story. Many people probably would have given up because he lacked traditional drawing skills, but he didn’t. That’s what is impressive to me. He kept going and now the world knows about his remarkable life.  

3. OWENS-THOMAS HOUSE AND SLAVE QUARTERS

You can tour many homes in Savannah, but none give such a thoughtful and detailed picture of enslaved life as this one does. Also designed by William Jay, the Owens-Thomas House held 14 enslaved people on the property by 1840; their stories are very much part of the tour.

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Don’t leave visiting this museum up to chance. They give tours by appointment only and they fill up each day. It’s not likely that you can just walk up and get inside unless you go first thing in the morning. It’s a good idea to start your tour here; otherwise, you’ll have to schedule your time in person and return later. Note, these museums don’t open until 10 am, so don’t show up at 9 am like I did.

The tour starts in the carriage house, one of the south’s oldest intact urban slave quarters. There are wood boards on the wall with the names of the enslaved, but some are blank. Though they know these people existed, their record-keeping was so poor that their names have been lost. It was immediately touching to see them remembered.

HAINT BLUE PAINT

Overhead, the old rafters were painted haint blue.

Haint paint was made with indigo, buttermilk and lime. The mixture, however, didn’t last long and constantly had to be repainted. This paint is a more modern mixture of ultramarine dating between 1830-1900.

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Though it’s not actual “haint,” the ceiling was painted by enslaved people who lived in that house and our tour guide said they believe it to be the most significant remaining swath of haint blue paint in the country.

INSIDE THE OWENS-THOMAS HOUSE

The tour continues through the English-style cultivated garden and inside the house. We saw the insanely elaborate house and learned about its history.

At one time, it was a boarding house and rumor has it that the Marquis de Lafayette stayed there and allegedly gave an impromptu speech from its first-floor balcony. Many people revere the place just for that.

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The house has an extensive array of decorative arts, including Owens family furnishings and American and European objects dating from 1750-to 1830. The house has multiple dining rooms, parlors, sitting rooms, and other rooms for who knows what. The staircase was especially grand, with a staircase going up both sides of the large entryway. At the top, a connecting bridge joined them in the center.

The tour upstairs included the bedrooms, a library, and an unfinished hallway water closet. The guide said it was the first house in Savannah with indoor plumbing. It’s always odd to me when these giant old houses have no kitchens or bathrooms.

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Fun fact: All the wood and marble are fake but painted to look natural. This was a tradition during the period for the extremely wealthy to have faux wood and stone since it was more expensive than the real at that time. Can you imagine?

LIVES OF THE ENSLAVED

In the basement, there is an archaic kitchen with wood burning stove, the laundry room, an ice room, a wine cellar, and other unidentified rooms. There was also a small gift shop. Holograms on the wall eerily depicted enslaved people still working.

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The exciting thing about this tour was that the entire focus, more than any other rich, southern house tour I’ve been on – and I’ve been on a lot – focused on the enslaved people and their lives much more than the family. It was based on the premise that the sale of enslaved people created the wealth and cared for the riches acquired from the sale of their bodies. It is a ruthless and exacting portrayal and well worth your time.

The cost for all three museums is $22 and your ticket is good for one week. The museums are open from 10 to 5 pm daily.

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