My research path varied as my multi-disciplinary career evolved. Beginning as a historical archaeologist working in the colonial mid-Atlantic, I began with a love of ceramics, My first articles were thinking about artifacts and the British production and cultural significance of ceramic wares.
My book Buying into the World of Goods: Early Consumers in the Virginia Backcountry examined a global mercantile system intertwining with local material expressions. A series of artifact studies threaded a narrative to highlight how furniture, architecture, and dress expressed racial, ethnic, and gendered identity in the complex cultural zone of backcountry Virginia. The book won prizes in material culture and business history. Following those methods, I assisted the curatorial team of the Smithsonian Museum of American History’s permanent exhibition American Enterprise (2015) to display and interpret a Chesapeake merchant and an account book to tell stories of objects and business of early America. I am most proud of the book as evidence of my ability to engage with serious academic scholarship in two fields and to reach out to the millions of Americans who visit the nation’s most important history museum.
A second manuscript project came from an exhibition of fine early American decorative arts. Those objects led to a complete re-thinking of the properties and visual effects of reflection and illumination and the ensuing book project Before the Light Bulb: A Material Culture of Lighting in American Homes. I co-edited (with J. Ritchie Garrison) American Material Culture: The Shape of the Field, and guest edited a special issue devoted to Material Culture in Early America in William and Mary Quarterly, I have curated eight exhibitions and published sixteen articles.
Following my successful completion of the William Ramsay section at the American Enterprise exhibition at the Smithsonian in July 2015, the allure of Mr. Ramsay moved me to a digital humanities project William Ramsay’s World: Accounting for Material Culture in Pre-Revolutionary Virginia, where I once again engage with the historical evidence of global trade, mercantile practice and retail sales to re-imagine the material culture and business of colonial America. The entire account book, including some 25,000 purchases, has been digitized to reveal the sale of 350 types of objects. When the website is complete, this project will be the first visual dictionary of objects and on-line chronicle of consumer behavior in early America.
I annually teach decorative arts surveys and seminars in material culture method and theory, and encourage students to practice and think about making things. I invite guest artists to class and partner with metals, furniture and ceramics professionals so students can try their hand at techniques of making. I bring in historical artifacts and documents to teach about the cultural systems that marketed such artifacts and the relationships that people formed with and through them.
Exhibition practice is another key component to embracing alternate forms of scholarship and communication. I have taught seven exhibition courses that reach out in differing forms of public discourse, from the campus museum to the Smithsonian Museum of History.
I also regularly teach material culture method and theory that range from the freshman/sophomore to graduate student level. I slide in as much when possible a graduate course on vernacular art where we travel in Wisconsin and Chicago to see and query what is sometimes called "vernacular art."
New media design, Exhibition, “Within These Walls,” National Museum of American History, Smithsonian, 2019.
Historical set design (ceramics and lighting). Amazon short series, “The Underground Railroad,” directed by Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins, based on Pulitzer Prize -winning novel by Colin Whitehead, December 2019.
Over $800,000 raised from Kohler, Mellon and Caxambas Foundations, as well as generous alumni to support Material Culture Program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. These were additional to Chipstone's generous funding of my position and students.