Located in Lawrence, Kansas, the Watkins Museum of History serves as a museum facility for the Douglas County Historical Society’s collections and programming, offering a variety of exhibits related to the history of the Douglas County area. The Watkins Museum of History is housed within the former Watkins Land Mortgage and National Bank building, which was constructed in 1888 by a commission by area banker Jabez Bunting Watkins.
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At the time of its opening, the Richardson Romanesque-style building was believed to be one of the finest architectural achievements in the United States west of the Mississippi River, constructed for the modern equivalent of $20 million. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the building housed offices for the J.B. Watkins Land Mortgage Company, which provided lending services for Midwestern farmers, and the Watkins National Bank. After Watkins’ death, his wife, Elizabeth, donated the building to the City of Lawrence in 1929, which operated it as the area’s City Hall from 1929 through 1970.
The Douglas County Historical Society was established in 1933 for the preservation of artifacts related to the social and cultural history of the Douglas County area. In the early 1970s, the Society acquired the Watkins building from the City of Lawrence and began renovations on the facility to transform it into a museum facility for Society historical collections. The building was reopened as the Elizabeth M. Watkins Museum in April of 1975. In 2012, the museum’s name was revised to the Watkins Museum of History to clarify its mission.
Permanent Exhibits and Collections
Today, the Watkins Museum is owned and operated by the Douglas County Historical Society, offering a variety of historical exhibits and public outreach programming. The Historical Society is overseen by a four-member board of directors, rotated yearly through an election held within the Society’s general membership. The museum serves as a center for civic engagement in the historical archival process, supporting local historical research with a focus on varying perspectives and struggles of area residents in the pursuit of freedom.
The museum’s core exhibit, the Lawrence Peace Center, which opened in 2013, is located on the second floor of the Watkins Building and focuses on the Civil War history and free-state struggles of the Kansas area. Panels chronicle the area’s history from the opening of the Kansas Territory in 1854 through the present day, focusing on personal stories of local residents and groups struggling for freedom. The painting “Blood-Stained Dawn” by Ernst Ulmer is showcased at the exhibit’s entrance, depicting William Quantrill’s August 1863 raid on the city of Lawrence, which devastated the city at the hands of 400 guerilla soldiers. A number of exhibits detail the city’s rebuilding and revitalization following the attack, including an exhibit of personal accounts of the attack and recovered furniture preserved from buildings that survived the raid. The area’s participation in the Civil War is also chronicled in a number of exhibits, including a display of preserved Civil War-era weapons and artifacts. Modern-day fights for freedom are also highlighted in the exhibit through displays of artifacts related to the 20th-century Civil Rights Movement and anti-Vietnam War protests.
In addition to the permanent anchor exhibit, a variety of temporary rotating exhibits are also showcased at the museum, focusing on topics related to the Douglas County area’s social and civic history. Past rotating exhibits have included Watkins: The Couple, the Building, the Legacy, which documented the business achievements and societal contributions of J.B. and Elizabeth Watkins, It Happened on Mass. Street, which detailed the development of Lawrence’s downtown area, and More than a Game: Basketball and Community Spirit, which showcased the role of basketball as a force for social change within the Douglas County area. Other exhibits have also focused on the early days of settlement in the Douglas County area and the city of Lawrence’s relationship with noted 20th-century poet Langston Hughes.
Ongoing Programs and Events
In addition to museum exhibits, the Watkins Museum of History maintains a Research Room on site, which serves as an educational and archival resource for the Douglas County community. Thousands of volumes, photographs, and historical documents are available for study by students and researchers by appointment, scheduled based on staff availability. All resources are available to the community for a nominal hourly fee, with support provided by museum research staff. Reproduction of photographic materials is available for some library holdings upon request for an additional fee. The Watkins building may be rented through the Historical Society for private special events, including weddings, family reunions, and business seminars. A number of local nonprofit organizations also use the Watkins Museum facility as a regular meeting place, including the Department of Kansas Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, the Daughters of the American Revolution, and the Lawrence Kansas Stamp Club.
1047 Massachusetts St, Lawrence, KS 66044, Phone: 785-841-4109