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 Banish the Night: Reflection and Illumination Before the Light Bulb. 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.
Finally, my own scholarly standing is further documented by the contract awarded by Oxford University Press to write A Very Short Introduction: Material Culture, using my own perspectives to map out the trajectory of a field.
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."