The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Category: Smithsonian History
In celebration of Black History Month, we will be highlighting stories of African American women who have uniquely contributed to the Smithsonian’s history. Check back on the blog throughout the month to explore the stories of these remarkable women.
Increasing diversity at the Smithsonian took time and persistence. Educators played an important role in this, even when museum collections lacked objects that reflected African American history. Tracy Carpenter was an education aide at the National Portrait Gallery starting in 1976, most likely through a program that recruited students from her school, American University, among others, to gain work experience. As an education aide, Ms. Carpenter would give tours to groups of students and show slides in classroom presentations at schools. Louise Daniel Hutchinson was an African American educator at the National Portrait Gallery a few years prior to Carpenter’s employment and who had worked to identify black history that could be discussed during museum tours. Carpenter was directly involved with the legacy of Ms. Hutchinson’s work, particularly through activities about the legacy of John Brown. He was an abolitionist famous for attempting to initiate an armed slave revolt by seizing the United States arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia. His trial and hanging inflamed attitudes and discussions regarding slavery in the country that led to the Civil War. Louise Hutchinson had done research about his story, and Tracy Carpenter later conducted a mock trial for John Brown with schoolchildren at the museum. This was a wonderful example of using the limited resources of a portrait gallery that highlighted white men in its busts and paintings, to complicate these representations with history of African Americans. It was also invaluable for local Washington, D.C., children to hear African American history.
Another major figure in education at the Smithsonian was Amina Dickerson, Director of Education at the National Museum of African Art from 1974 to 1982. Her first initiative after arriving at the museum was establishing African Heritage Month. Through this work she cultivated relationships with schools in Washington, D.C., and invited drummers, artists, poets, and many other performers to help children and adults alike get a better understanding of African culture and see their own culture represented as important enough to be taught in schools and shared in museums. Dickerson herself was a member of the Museum of African Art Musical Ensemble, a group that would perform at many events at the museum. The museum also screened films about everything from figures like Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King, Jr., to African music and black pride. All of the activities Amina Dickerson put together for this program informed her work in the rest of her time with the Smithsonian. In addition, the education department focused on making its programs more accessible. This included working with the elderly, hospitals, and the deaf community through a partnership with the Model Secondary School for the Deaf at Gallaudet College.
As educators these women also had direct a impact on the stories communicated by docents and at programs for their respective museums. This was crucial in the National Portrait Gallery, where most materials left little room for telling black history, as well as at the National Museum of African Art, which took its messages to public spheres that needed to see diversity. In going to both of these museums, African American children would be able to see their own history represented, and white children had the opportunity to develop cultural sensitivity and respect. Louise Hutchinson and Tracy Carpenter took a place where the collections were not diverse and challenged the messages by making an educational script relate collections to African American history. Amina Dickerson took a museum that celebrated African culture and made these materials available to other places of education with schools. Education helps define what we believe and how we see ourselves in relation to other Americans, and these women made African and African American history and culture part of a larger discussion for children and visitors to the Smithsonian.
A New Look at the Smithsonian: Louise Hutchinson, The Bigger Picture blog, The Smithsonian Instituion Archives
Amina J. Dickerson oral history, The HistoryMakers
We are excited to announce that the C. Malcom Watkins oral history interviews are newly available for research. Watkins (1911-2001) was known for his assertion that he could tell the history of American culture using an earthenware teacup. He was a cultural historian who developed an early interest in American material culture through his parents, Charles H. and Lura Woodside Watkins, who collected glass and pottery.
Watkins received the B.S. from Harvard College in 1934 and began his museum career as Curator for the Wells Historical Museum, predecessor of Old Sturbridge Village, in Massachusetts. In 1949, he was appointed Associate Curator in the Division of Ethnology, in the Smithsonian’s United States National Museum (USNM), where he was responsible for the collections documenting American technology and decorative arts. When a separate National Museum of History and Technology (NMHT), now the National Museum of American History, was created in 1958, Watkins assumed responsibility for a new Division of Cultural History in the Department of Civil History. In 1969, a separate Department of Cultural History was established, with Watkins as Chairman. In 1973, he was named Senior Curator in the Department, a position he held until his retirement in 1980. He continued his research as Curator Emeritus until 1984.
During his career at the USNM and NMHT, Watkins worked on numerous exhibits, including the Hall of Everyday Life in the American Past, Growth of the United States, and A Nation of Nations. His exhibitions were innovative in their recreations of everyday life and in the range of cultural groups portrayed, including African American material culture. During his early years in the Department of Anthropology, he learned the archeological and material culture analysis techniques used by anthropologists and adapted these to the study of American culture. Watkins was a pioneer in the fields of material culture studies and historical archeology through his collecting, writings, exhibitions, and mentoring of younger scholars. An inveterate collector, he was also responsible for the acquisition of many significant collections, including the Arthur and Edna Greenwood Collection of Americana, the Remensnyder Collection of American Stoneware, and the Morgenstern Collection of early American material culture. His major research projects included the Marlborough and Jamestown, Virginia, archeological sites, North Devon pottery export to America, and early California history.
One of Watkins’ colleagues and mentees, Susan H. Myers, began to record oral history interviews of him in 1992 and she donated these to the Oral History Collection. Archives Historian Pam Henson continued the interview series, recording 14.5 hours of reminiscences of this important Smithsonian figure. These interviews discuss his family, youth, education, and first job at Wells Historical Museum. They also cover his curatorial career in the Division of Ethnology and Department of Cultural History, work on exhibits, research interests, role in the development of the fields of material culture studies and historical archeology, and reminiscences of such colleagues as Edna Greenwood, Herbert W. Krieger, Frank A. Taylor, George H. Watson, and Albert Wells.
However, Watkins had never returned the deed of gift forms – a common problem in oral history – limiting their use. The executor of his estate recently deeded them to us and we are delighted to announce that we are now preparing final transcripts and the interviews will soon be available for research use.
Kindred Spirits: A.B. Wells, Malcolm Watkins, and the Origins of Old Sturbridge Village, Old Sturbridge Village
C. Malcolm Watkins Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives
C. Malcolm Watkins Oral History Interviews, Smithsonian Institution Archives
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