STURBRIDGE – In 1936, A.B. Wells and Malcolm Watkins formed an extraordinary partnership that began an enduring 70-year legacy. They were two men with a passion for collecting and who had a vision for telling the story of early American life; they were indeed kindred spirits.
An upcoming exhibit at Old Sturbridge Village Kindred Spirits: A.B. Wells, Malcolm Watkins and the Origins of Old Sturbridge Village, opening on May 2, displays hundreds of fascinating objects that these men first selected, and formed the basis of what would become one of America's most iconic and cherished living history museums.
Albert B. “A.B.” Wells, an industrialist from Southbridge, was decidedly obsessed with the everyday furnishings, objects, tools and gadgets of early New England. As he amassed an impressive collection, he hired Harvard educated Malcolm Watkins to curate his treasures as he began planning a way to display them to the public.
Watkins was the son of noted decorative arts collector and expert Lura Woodside Watkins, and he described his childhood as “steeped in antiques.” Upon meeting each other, A.B. Wells said of Watkins, “By God, you love this stuff,” and their 12-year collaboration eventually resulted in the founding of what is known today as Old Sturbridge Village.
Watkins went on to a long career at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of History and Technology, which became the National Museum of American History. He married ceramist and researcher Joan Pearson in 1962, and they together continued to develop an impressive collection of early American stoneware and pottery.
Malcolm Watkins died in 2001, while Joan Pearson Watkins passed away in 2013, and according to their will a portion of their estate was bequeathed to Old Sturbridge Village. The village’s Collections Committee Chair Jane Nylander was delighted that OSV was able to select more than two hundred objects from the nationally renowned Watkins Collections.
“The Watkins gift has enriched the core holdings of the Village at the same time that it has deepened understanding of the criteria which governed the patterns of collecting and acquisition criteria practiced by both A. B. Wells and Malcolm Watkins,” Nylander said. “We are most grateful to Jonathan Fairbanks, the Trustee of the Joan Pearson Watkins Trust for making this possible.”
Approximately half of the objects in the exhibit are from Old Sturbridge Village’s existing collection, while the remaining are newly acquired objects from the Watkins estate. These include furniture, stoneware and an extensive array of burl ware bowls and tools. Burl ware is fashioned from malformations on trees, prized for their unique grains that result in pieces of great beauty and rarity. An entire room in the original Wells Historical Museum was devoted to burl ware; curators have re-constructed a wall display from this room based on an early photograph.
Kindred Spirits, open through Jan. 15, 2016, is the first of a two-part exhibit celebrating the 70th Anniversary of the founding of Old Sturbridge Village. It is curated by Old Sturbridge Village Historian and Curator of Mechanical Arts, Tom Kelleher, and the first exhibit since Caitlin Emery was appointed Museum Curator. Entrance to the exhibit is included with regular admission to Old Sturbridge Village and free for OSV members and residents of Sturbridge.
Kindred Spirits explores the nature of collecting and collectors, and in conjunction with the exhibit Old Sturbridge Village will host a Collectors Forum, “A Taste for the Past: Collecting in America,” on Oct. 24. The forum, which requires advance registration, features lectures by Jane Nylander, President Emerita of Historic New England; and Philip Hayden, Architectural Historian. In addition, OSV’s Tom Kelleher will provide a “behind-the-scenes” look at the exhibit, including some objects not on display, and one workshop will address collecting in today’s market. Tickets for the collectors forum are $85 for OSV members, $135 for non-members and may be purchased online at osv.org.