American History in an Earthenware Teacup

C. Malcolm Watkins, 1979
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.  

Interior Room of a 1684 Massachusetts House, NMHT
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.  

Visitors viewing to the Growth of the United States Hall, c.1967
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.  

Related Resources

Kindred Spirits: A.B. Wells, Malcolm Watkins, and the Origins of Old Sturbridge VillageOld Sturbridge Village 

Related Collections

C. Malcolm Watkins Papers, Smithsonian Institution Archives

C. Malcolm Watkins Oral History InterviewsSmithsonian Institution Archives

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