Turning a ledger into Smithsonian exhibit

In 2013, sixteen UW-Madison students spent a semester delving into the mysteries of a single dusty account book kept by a colonial merchant.

The results of their work didn’t emerge for another two years, but when they led to a permanent exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution, the wait seemed worthwhile.

The students and their professor, Ann Smart Martin, the Stanley and Polly Stone (Chipstone) Professor of Art History and director of the Material Culture Program, celebrated the opening of the American Enterprise exhibition at the National Museum of American History in Washington D.C this past July.

The display created by her students in Art History 601 took its place between objects such as George Washington’s tea chest and artifacts from the TV show “Mad Men.”

“Seeing it all together, telling the nation’s long story of enterprise, innovation and business in the midst of this extraordinary space filled with important and evocative objects, took my breath away,” says Martin. “To ground it all, a merchant’s account book recorded debt, credit, and the things people bought 250 years ago. That story was tugged out and pieced together by my University of Wisconsin students. Unbelievable.”

In 2008, Martin produced a pioneering book, Buying into the World of Goods, Early Consumers in Backcountry Virginia, using a merchant’s ledger to expand on the material culture and behavior of 18th century Virginia.

Smithsonian curator Nancy Davis expressed an interest in using Martin’s methods to analyze a similar ledger used by merchant William Ramsay from 1753-1756.

Ramsay helped found Alexandria, Virginia, then a prominent port on the Potomac River. His accounts included many consumer goods bought and sold to recognizable figures such as George Washington, then in his early 20s.

Since the class ended in May 2013, Martin and two graduate students spent another two years working on the interactive digital account of the display, along with researching more about the changing system of debt. A Graduate School research grant helped fund continuing work.

“This kind of work is humanities in action that would help in any career,” she says.