The Smithsonian Institution Archives began its Oral History Program in 1973. The purpose of the program is to supplement the written documentation of the Archives'
record and manuscript collections with an Oral History Collection, focusing on the history of the Institution, research by its scholars, and contributions of its staff. Program
staff conduct interviews with current and retired Smithsonian staff and others who have made significant contributions to the Institution. There are also interviews conducted
by researchers or student on topics related to the history of the Smithsonian or the holdings of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.
C. Malcolm Watkins was interviewed for the Oral History Collection because of his long and distinguished career as curator in the Department of Cultural History, National
Museum of American History, and his pioneering role in fields like historical archeology and material culture studies.
These interviews of Watkins by Pamela M. Henson, Historian for Smithsonian Institution Archives, and Susan H. Myers, Curator of Ceramics and Glass at the National Museum
of American History, discuss his family, youth, and education; first job at Wells Historical Museum; curatorial career in the Division of Ethnology and Department of Cultural
History; contributions to exhibits; research interests; role in the development of the fields of material culture studies and historical archeology; and reminiscences of such
colleagues as Edna Muriel Hilburn Little Greenwood, Herbert W. Krieger, Frank A. Taylor, George H. Watson, and Albert Wells.
This collection is comprised of eight interview sessions, totaling approximately 13.0 hours of recordings and 235 pages of transcript.
C. Malcolm Watkins (1911-2001), cultural historian, 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, 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) 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.
In 1980, the National Museum of History and Technology was renamed the National Museum of American History (NMAH).
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 Nation of Nations. He was 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. Watkins was a pioneer in the fields of material culture studies and historical
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The papers of C. Malcolm Watkins provide comprehensive documentation of his professional career from 1934 to 1980. The collection documents his interest in early American
culture; his research on ceramics, historic archeology, and early California history; his curatorial and administrative activities in the Department of Anthropology, USNM,
and the Departments of Civil and Cultural History, NMHT; exhibits planning; and his role in professional societies
Series 1 consists of correspondence written and received by Watkins between 1941 and 1978. This large correspondence file documents his career at the Smithsonian, particularly
his interest in American material culture, especially ceramics, glass, and artificial lighting; historic archeology; teaching; and his role in professional societies. Correspondence
also documents exhibitions; restoration and identification of historic material; acquisitions; and museum administration. Correspondence files include magazine and newspaper
articles, booklets, photographs, graphic illustrations, and brochures.
Series 2 contains subject files, 1949-1979, documenting his research, exhibits planning, and professional society activities including his role in founding the Society
for Historical Archeology. These research files and those found in Series 5, 6, 7, and 8 document Watkins' work on early American culture, including the Marlborough and Jamestown,
Virginia, excavations; California early history and California Kitchen projects; North Devon pottery; Yorktown pottery; decorative arts; and American imports. Research files
include notes, correspondence, graphic illustrations, articles, photographs, site drawings, seminar and conference literature, and exhibit scripts.
Series 2 also contains information compiled by Watkins on historic sites, institutions dedicated to historic preservation and historic archeology, museums, and museum practices.
Museology files in Series 3 contain correspondence, brochures and pamphlets, newsclippings, and articles, reports, procedures manuals, proposals, and lecture notes.
Throughout his years at the USNM and NMHT, Watkins amassed a variety of material on the Smithsonian. The files in Series 4 document administrative policies; acquisitions;
ideas for departmental reorganization and future planning; Smithsonian Council meetings; the Smithson Bicentennial; exhibits including "Everyday Life in the American Past,"
"Artificial Lighting in America," and "A Nation of Nations"; symposia and seminars; Watkins' sabbatical; and general information on travel, teaching, and the Smithsonian Research
Foundation. Smithsonian files include memoranda, copies of reports, correspondence, notes, scripts, proposals, newsclippings, name and address lists, and articles. Series
9 documents his work on the "A Nation of Nations" exhibit.
The collection also includes a Series (10) on historical archeology mainly comprising the files of Marilyn Sara Cohen, a museum specialist working on the Historical Archeology
Project in the Division of Cultural History. It contains conference information, an interview with Watkins, correspondence, research notes, memoranda, and reports.
C. Malcolm Watkins (1911- ) was born in Malden, Massachusetts, and developed an interest in early American material culture at a young age through the work of his parents
and grandfather. His mother, Lura Woodside Watkins, collected glass and pottery and published Cambridge Glass, 1818-1888 on the history of the New England Glass Company.
She later donated her extensive collection of kiln site pottery to the Smithsonian. Watkins' father, Charles H. Watkins, was interested in pottery as well. He participated
in the excavation of a site at Newburyport, Massachusetts, and collected potsherds. In addition, the inheritance of his grandfather's collection of lighting devices served
as an impetus for Watkins' research in artificial lighting techniques.
Watkins received his B.S. from Harvard College in 1934 and began his museum career as curator for the Wells Historical Museum (Southbridge, Massachusetts), the predecessor
of Old Sturbridge village (Sturbridge, Massachusetts). Watkins was its first curator, working there from 1936 to 1948, except for a leave of absence from 1942-1946 to serve
in the United States Air Force during World War II. In 1949, he began his career at the Smithsonian as an associate curator in the Division of Ethnology, Department of Anthropology,
United States National Museum (USNM). Watkins was responsible for the collections of American technology and decorative arts. When a separate Museum of History and Technology
was created in 1958, Watkins assumed responsibility for the new Division of Cultural History in the Department of Civil History, as curator (1958, 1960-1966) and supervisor
and curator (1967-1968). In this position, Watkins developed the national collections of American material culture, especially ceramics and glass. He also built the staff
of the Division and in 1969 achieved departmental status for Cultural History. He was appointed its first chairman, in addition to his duties as curator of Pre-Industrial
History and Ethnic and Western History. In 1973, he became senior curator of the Department of Cultural History, the position he held until his retirement in 1980. He continued
research as curator emeritus until 1984.
Watkins' wife, Joan Pearson Watkins, collaborated with him. From 1964 to 1977, she held the position of honorary curator, and from 1978 to 1979 she was an honorary research
associate. In 1980, she became a collaborator in the Division of Ceramics and Glass, a position she held until 1983.
During his career at the Smithsonian, Watkins worked on numerous exhibits. In 1955, he prepared an exhibition on "Folk Pottery of Early New England," which contained the
redware and stoneware from his mother's collection. The first large exhibition hall devoted to the history of everyday life in colonial and federal America was developed by
Watkins and opened in 1957 as part of the Exhibits Modernization Program. In 1964, a revised version of the hall opened in the new History and Technology Building as the "Hall
of Everyday Life in the American Past." Watkins was also involved in the construction of the "Growth of the United States" exhibit in the new museum, which represented the
material culture of the developing nation. The California Kitchen, found by Watkins and Pearson Watkins, was added to the exhibits in the History and Technology Building in
1965. In celebration of the Bicentennial of the American Revolution, Watkins contributed to the colonial section of the exhibition, "A Nation of Nations," which opened in
In addition to working on exhibits, Watkins spent much of his time acquiring and developing collections. His most important acquisition was the Arthur and Edna Greenwood
Collection of some 2,000 objects of Americana documenting everyday life in colonial America. Other major acquisitions during his tenure included the Remensnyder Collection
of American Stoneware and the Morgenstern Collection of early American material culture.
In addition to his curatorial duties, Watkins devoted much of his time to lecturing and writing scholarly and popular articles. His major publications include The Cultural
History of Marlborough, Virginia, North Devon Pottery and its Export to America in the 17th Century, and The "Poor Potter" of Yorktown, which he wrote with
Ivor Noel Hume.
Watkins was a pioneer in the field of historic archeology. He began his excavations of a colonial plantation at Marlborough, Virginia, with Frank M. Setzler in 1953 and
continued through 1969. Watkins also began excavations at the Jamestown, Virginia, site in 1955. In addition, he wrote and lectured extensively on historic archeology, served
as a consultant to numerous historic archeology projects, and was an active member of the Society for Historic Archeology, which he helped found.
In 1960, Watkins began his research on North Devon pottery imported to the United States in the 17th century, which led to a monograph on that topic. In 1965, he and Pearson
Watkins collaborated on an oral history project in Moore County, North Carolina, researching folk pottery traditions. In addition to Watkins' interest in ceramics, he also
spent considerable time researching early California history. Publications on this topic include James Johnston's White House in Half Moon Bay: An Example of Early Anglo-American
Reminiscent Architecture in California and New England in El Dorado: The Letters and Narrative Accounts of Robert and Caroline Batchelder Thompson, California Pioneers.
Watkins was active in numerous associations and societies including the Early American Industries Association, the Society of Architectural Historians, the National Trust
for Historic Preservation, the Western History Association, the California Historical Society, and the American Association of Museums. During the 1960s, Watkins also taught
for the American Studies Program at George Washington University.
For additional information on Watkins, see Record Unit 331, Department of Cultural History, 1954-1979, and undated, Records, and the C. Malcolm Watkins Interviews in the
1911 -- Born in Malden, Massachusetts
1934 -- Bachelor of Science, Harvard College, Cambridge, Massachusetts
1934-1935 -- Self employed as a free-lance writer on antiques