African American Groundbreakers at the Smithsonian: Challenges and Achievements

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Malcolm Watkins

C. Malcolm Watkins, 1979
C. Malcolm Watkins was an unlikely revolutionary; nevertheless, he would lead a vanguard of curators who brought African American history into the Smithsonian in the 1960s and 1970s. Hailing from Old New England stock, he started out as a cultural historian of his own colonial forebears and one might assume that his museum exhibits would have portrayed upper-class homes of the Boston Brahmins as typical of American life.1 However, Watkins was attentive to the vast changes afoot in these decades of protest and attuned to the New Social History of the era, which demanded telling the history of everyday life rather than focusing on the history of “Great Men” alone. This sensibility informed his work on two landmark exhibits at the Smithsonian’s Museum of History and Technology, now the National Museum of American History, The Hall of Everyday Life in the American a Past and A Nation of Nations, and ultimately made him a strong advocate for the inclusion of African Americans into the nation’s official history.

Early Career

Born in 1911 in Malden, Massachusetts, Watkins graduated from Harvard University in 1934. He came from a family of collectors, setting him on the path to become a founder of the field of historic archaeology and an early proponent of studying history through the material culture of the past. His mother Lura Woodside Watkins had been a noted scholar of glass and pottery.  In the course of her career, she did groundbreaking research into the history of clay pottery in New England, unearthing a history of colonial pottery manufacture that became a foundation for future work. Significantly, the collections brought in to the Watkins home were not the sorts of fine porcelain pieces that grace the tables of antique stores today, but rather the workaday red clay pottery that everyday Americans used to prepare their meals. This focus on everyday life profoundly shaped his future sensibilities as a historical archaeologist and curator.2 

Watkins arrived at the Smithsonian in 1949 after spending eleven years as the curator of the Old Sturbridge Village living history museum in Massachusetts and four years in US Air Force. He began as an associate curator in the Division of Ethnology at the United States National Museum.  His tenure there further broadened his ideas about cultural history and reinforced his interest in material culture. Then in 1958, he became curator in Division of Cultural History at the newly established Museum of History and Technology. After the division was upgraded to a department, he became its Senior Curator in 1973. Over the course of his thirty one years at the Smithsonian, Watkins worked on a wide variety of exhibits, among them a 1955 exhibition on Folk Pottery of Early New England featuring the redware and stoneware from his mother’s collection. He also published several influential books based on his excavations including The Cultural History of Marlborough, Virginia, North Devon Pottery and its Export to America in the 17th Century, and The “Poor Potter” of Yorktown (with Ivor Noel Hume).3

History from the Bottom Up

When Watkins first arrived at the Smithsonian, years of economic depression and war meant that the exhibits in his division hadn’t been updated in decades. Many artifacts on display were slowly disintegrating in their cases and little was done to interpret the past for visitors.4 So, the new curator took the opportunity to become a real force behind modernizing the exhibits and helped bring the material culture of everyday life into the Smithsonian.

At the beginning of Watkins’s career as a curator, there wasn’t even a generally accepted word for the sorts of collecting he was doing, so he borrowed the term “material culture” from anthropology and applied its methodology to the curation of historical exhibits.5 Rather than simply placing rare objects on display, Watkins wanted to use objects “to tell people how other people lived or what they lived with and something about the histories of some of the details of these things, if they were ceramics or if they were furniture.”6Taking the artifacts off of their pedestals where they had been objects of reverence about great leaders and great events of the past, they became windows on to the daily lived existence of the average person.

This perspective also led Watkins to embrace the new social history of the 1960s and 1970s, which sought to recover the perspectives of those who lived far from the pinnacle of society, to tell history from “the bottom up.” However, to tell history from the bottom up also means telling it from multiple and often conflicting perspectives. Watkins was willing to embrace the challenge of the times and instead of offering a simple celebration of the American past, he wrestled with the painful legacy of slavery, white supremacy and Jim Crow. As a curator, he sought to portray honestly and accurately a history of everyday life in which one portion of the American people had enslaved and oppressed another.

“You didn’t ask about race.”

With the opening of the newly established Museum of History and Technology, Watkins had his first opportunity to manifest this vision on a large scale. Opening in 1957 in a gallery on the second floor of the Natural History Building, Everyday Life in Early America illustrated the daily existence of a wide range of early Americans. In addition to fifty one display cases of Americana, the exhibit featured a two story farmhouse from Marlboro, Massachusetts, originally built in 1690, as well as four period rooms, including an 1820 New Hampshire schoolroom, a colonial era farmhouse bedroom from East Brimfield, Massachusetts, and three parlors: one from “rural New England” dating from 1720, another from Springfield, Massachusetts, from the 1750s, and a third from Sussex County, Virginia, “of Revolutionary days.” 7 One early review noted that these modernized exhibits made it possible to understand the past in ways that early Americans might have lived it, to see how the “rough-hewn floors have been worn smooth by the tread of farmers’ boots.” 8

C. Malcolm Watkins in the Hall of Everyday Life, NMHT
Everyday Life in Early America was a precedent-setting exhibit that really began to change the ways in which curators began to represent the past. As Watkins explained in a 1995 interview, these period rooms made “it possible for the visitor to walk into human spaces of other eras and sense their special time and way of living.” 9 Nevertheless, the exhibit was undermined by the complete omission of the “human spaces” of the African American experience. A proposed 14 page docent script created for the exhibit in 1957, has sections on the English, the Germans, the Dutch, the Swedes, even the Finns. However, there was not a single mention of Africans, African Americans, or slavery.10 

Though Watkins did not deliberately choose to exclude African Americans, he was limited by the objects available to him. Though there were African American artifacts scattered throughout the Smithsonian’s collections, these had not been collected in a systematic fashion.11 Prior to the late 1960s, there was little reckoning with race at the Smithsonian. As Associate Curator Claudia Kidwell recalled in a 1999 interview:

You didn’t ask about race.  You didn’t ask about ethnicity ... We were thinking in a sort of generalized hegemonic way, which had a white face on it.” 12 


Everyday Life in Early America migrated to the Museum of History and Technology when the museum moved to its own building in 1964. Rechristened the Hall of Everyday Life in the American Past, the revised exhibit went up during the peak years of the civil rights movement.13 As he was crating his artifacts for shipment to the new space, Watkins read about the progress of the movement in the pages of The Washington Post:  Montgomery, Greensboro, Birmingham, Selma. If he had stood in front of the Museum of Natural History in 1963, he would have seen 250,000 African Americans and their allies march past his office to attend the 1963 March on Washington. Five years later, he would also have smelled the smoke as it rose above DC during the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The aftermath of this unrest prompted Frank Taylor, the Director General of Museums, to issue a memo calling on curators to examine their exhibitions for any African American presence, and reflect “on how to increase black presence in the museum.” 14 At the same time, Watkins’ wife Joan, living through the exact same history, pushed Watkins “to do something” at the Smithsonian “for black people.” 15   

Watkins responded by including a new case titled “African Backgrounds and Negro Slavery.” This contained a schematic of a slave ship, a slave chain and shackle, “a carved elephant tusk depicting a slave march,” as well as several other artifacts to illustrate the existence of African cultural survivals in the New World.16 Though an important addition to the exhibit, this remained just a sidebar. Watkins needed an artifact large enough to place the African American experience on an equal footing with the experiences of the other groups represented in the Hall of Everyday Life

Reckoning with Race

Watkins got his chance to do so in 1969 when he learned about tenant shack just outside of Bowie, Maryland. Occupied by black farmers for much of the preceding century, this dwelling was slated for demolition in order to construct a shopping complex.17 Watkins had already incorporated a log cabin, a kitchen from a white rancher’s home in northern California, and a mock-up of an adobe house from New Mexico.18 As a representative of African American life, the shack would offer a valuable addition to the exhibit. Watkins wanted the inclusion of the shack to be a response to the “burning” unrest that rocked DC in the later 1960s and rushed to put it into the exhibit.19   

Mulliken-Spragins Tenant House

The inclusion of the tenant shack in the Hall of Everyday Life made it possible for Watkins – along with a growing team of curators – to press the administration for funds to begin systematically collecting African American artifacts.20 New exhibits soon portrayed the conflicts that illuminated the shortcomings of America’s democratic promise. Among these included a 1972 exhibit on the right to vote, where the Political History Division displayed artifacts from the voting rights march in Selma, Alabama, including “the jacket worn by march leader Hosea Williams, which had been torn by police dogs.” 21

Despite this progress, there was still considerable resistance against including African American history in the Smithsonian at all. Including a history of African Americans that also included an honest accounting of the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow was also bound to make museum administrators anxious. As colleague Keith Melder recalled, “until the late 1960s the museum was reluctant to step into issues that might raise hackles of conservative politicians.” 22 Additionally, historian Daniel J. Boorstin, who was the director of the National Museum of History and Technology from 1969 to 1973, possessed a fundamental belief “in the success of American history,” which made it difficult to include those aspects of the African American experience that contradicted his sunny view of American progress.23 

The viewing public would also directly challenge these attempts to make the Smithsonian more inclusive. After The Washington Post reported in December of 1965 that the Smithsonian was planning to develop a permanent exhibit on African American history, a concerned citizen reflecting on the recent unrest in Watts wrote into the museum: “Let me beg you not to put on display anything concerning the brutality of Slavery .... Let me beg you to have the present dangerous situation in our country in mind when you consider exhibiting artifacts which may, quite rightly, instill a further hatred of the white man.” 24  This concern about a violent reaction was not misplaced, although it would not be the result of black anger. In 1968, the museum acquired a banner commemorating the life of the recently slain Martin Luther King that had been handmade by the residents of Resurrection City, the tent city erected on the Mall by the 3,000 marchers who had arrived in DC as part of the Poor People’s Campaign. As part of a display commemorating 1968 as Human Rights Year, political history curator Keith Melder chose to display it. Though hung on the wall, out of reach of visitors, somebody managed to set it on fire, destroying an irreplaceable artifact.25   

"A Nation of Nations"

These factors would profoundly shape the ways in which the African American experience would be included in the landmark exhibit, A Nation of Nations. Five years in the making, the exhibit opened in 1976 at the National Museum of History and Technology as part of the Smithsonian’s celebration of the Bicentennial of the American Revolution.26 

With its title taken from the preface to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the exhibit sought to demonstrate the ways in which people of widely differing experiences from across the world came to forge a new, and uniquely American, identity.27 The 6,000-plus artifacts ranged from pre-historic axe heads used by the original Americans in what is now New Mexico to neon signs from Goldberg’s Pizza on New York’s Second Avenue.28 

The original idea that Boorstin proposed to Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley in 1969 for A Nation of Nations conceived of the entire exhibit as a response to the “internal divisions” that by the late 1960s appeared to threaten the stability of American society.29 By the time the exhibit opened seven years later, America had witnessed the civil rights movement and the white backlash against it, anti-war protests and hard hat riots in New York, a wave of public sector strikes and the resignation of a disgraced president. Though Boorstin left the Smithsonian in 1973, he had an enduring impact on the development of the exhibit.  As curator Keith Melder recalled, this ensured that A Nation of Nations wound up being “a very celebratory exhibit. It celebrated American integration and the achievement of bringing many groups together and having them produce something, a new kind of culture based on diversity.” While these goals were certainly laudable, “every exhibit of that sort distorts and it presented a kind of rosy picture of the outcome.” 30 For example, Boorstin tried to avoid discussing slavery, which would have raised the question of who profited from the enslavement of African Americans.  Instead, the original exhibition proposal sought to discuss “the Negro and his status as an unwilling immigrant.” 31

Despite these limitations, Watkins, Melder and others sought to ensure that at least a few dissonant notes would be heard in Boorstin’s anthem of American progress. In a December 1971 memo to curator Harold Skramstad, Watkins insisted that “the Black experience simply has to be dealt with.” Among his recommendations was to display a plow “with a glaring hot light shining down on it” symbolic of the “hard, exhausting labor” of slavery.32 Though ultimately not included in the final exhibit, the choice of a tool of labor to represent slavery highlighted its fundamental purpose: to provide bound African American labor in order to make profit for the white slaveholders who ranked among the nation’s founders.33

Muhammad Ali, Ellen Roney Hughes, and Carl Scheele in the National Museum of History and Technology
As a principled curator resolute upon an honest and accurate accounting of African American history, Watkins insisted that the artifacts speak for themselves and opposed efforts to sensationalize African American history. One early idea for A Nation of Nations called for a reproduction of a slave ship “brought to life in all of its horror. The manacled slaves, the filth, the rags that may have covered part of them, the slop-buckets.” 34 Another was to create an area which would contain prerecorded racist remarks shouted by an actor over a loudspeaker alongside a mock-up of “an automobile completely covered with spray-on signs of hatred – ‘Nigger go home’.” 35 

Watkins feared such sensationalized depictions would make a mockery and a spectacle of the African American experience, and vigorously opposed them. As he explained to Skramstad in February of 1973:

“anyone who knows my feelings about a just depiction of the black man’s historical role knows that I am not suggesting a racist cop-out.  I think, however, that this rather horrendous life-like scene is better suited to a wax museum than to this one .... It would seem to me that black people as well as white people would be turned off by such ... an explicit retailing of horror.” 36 

Rather, he argued for the inclusion of accurately rendered “contemporary slave ship diagrams and scenes, and West African slave port scenes” rooted in scholarly research.37 Instead of a fabrication of racist graffiti, Watkins wondered “whether a panel of photographs of actual racist graffiti might not serve more effectively and accurately to convey this aspect of prejudice” than a mock-up of “artificially created insults.” 38 Finally, he rejected the plan of broadcasting racist remarks over a speaker system, arguing that “those who have suffered prejudice do not need this kind of reminder; those who have not may not be reached by it or may be stirred in ways opposite to the intent.” Without this timely intervention, A Nation of Nations may have inadvertently wound up as a celebration of racism rather than American diversity and inclusion.39 

This insistence on letting the objects tell the story in A Nation of Nations prevented Boorstin’s optimistic narrative of American progress and integration from submerging the as yet unreconciled conflicts over America’s historic legacy of slavery and racism. Even though the overall theme of the show was “unity in diversity,” the objects chosen often belied that narrative – including the display of Klan robe, Eddie Cantor’s blackface makeup, and the slave manacles that had caused such concern in 1965.40 By focusing on capturing everyday life, Watkins paved the way for the attempt to also capture everyone’s life. 

A Nation of Nations was the last major exhibit that Watkins worked on.  He retired from the Smithsonian in 1980 and passed away in 2001. At the memorial service held for Watkins at the National Museum of American History, one eulogist summed up his contribution thus:

“Watkins[‘s] exhibits demonstrated how America’s strength and beauty lay in its diversity, in the broad range of people who built it.  Watkins rejected simple celebratory stories, and taught American history through the experiences of those who were successful and those who struggle to survive, the stories of elites, and slaves, and hard scrabble settlers, and inner city immigrants.  His vision resonated with our audience for decades, a message that should continue to serve us now and for decades to come.”41


1 Smithsonian Institution Archives (hereafter SIA), Record Unit 9586, C. Malcolm Watkins Interviews, Research File, Pamela Henson, eulogy for C. Malcolm Watkins Memorial, 30 May 2001. Return to text

SIA, Record Unit 9586, C. Malcolm Watkins Interviews, Research File, “Biographical Sketch,”; “C. Malcolm Watkins,” The Society for Historical Archaeology Newsletter, Vol. 29, No. 1 (March 1996), 7-8. Return to text

3 SIA, Record Unit 9586, C. Malcolm Watkins Interviews, Research File, “Biographical Sketch.” Return to text

SIA, Record Unit 9586, C. Malcolm Watkins Interviews, Interview 1, 17 January 1992, 21-25, 28. Return to text

SIA, Record Unit 9586, C. Malcolm Watkins Interviews, Interview 4, 11 January 1994, 7, 44. Note: A Google ngram search reveals that the earliest appearances of the term “material culture” in print occur in anthropological literature. Return to text

Ibid., 27.Return to text

7 “C. Malcolm Watkins, Senior Curator for Smithsonian, Dies at 89,” Washington Post, 20 Jan 2001, B7; “Exhibit Depicts Early America,” Washington Post, 20 Jan 1957, A12. Return to text

8 “Exhibit Depicts Early America,” Washington Post, 20 Jan 1957, A12. Return to text

9  SIA, Record Unit 9586, C. Malcolm Watkins Interviews, Interview 8, 14 May 1995, 19-20. Return to text

10  SIA, Record Unit 7322, Watkins, C. Malcolm, C. Malcolm Watkins Papers, Box 10, Folder 5, Mrs. Peter McDonald to Malcolm Watkins, 19 July 1957. Return to text

11Michèle Gates-Moresi, “Exhibiting Race, Creating Nation: Representations of Black History and Culture at the Smithsonian Institution, 1895-1976” (Ph.D. diss, George Washington University, 2003), 110. Return to text

12 SIA, Record Unit 9603, African-American Exhibits at the Smithsonian Interviews, Interview 5, Kidwell, Claudia, interviewee, 14 September 1999, 18. Return to text

13  "C. Malcolm Watkins, Senior Curator for Smithsonian, Dies at 89,” Washington Post, 20 Jan 2001, B7. Return to text

14  SIA, Record Unit 9603, African-American Exhibits at the Smithsonian Interviews, Draft Finding Aid, vi. Return to text

15  SIA, Record Unit 9586, C. Malcolm Watkins Interviews, Interview 4, 11 January 1994, 29. Return to text

16 Gates-Moresi, 123-124. Return to text

17 "A Bit of Bowie in the Smithsonian,” The Bowie News, 22 March 1978.  Copy in SIA, Record Unit 7322, Box 8, Folder 8. Return to text

18 SIA, Record Unit 9586, C. Malcolm Watkins Interviews, Interview 6, 8 May 1995, 25. Return to text

19 SIA, Record Unit 9586, C. Malcolm Watkins Interviews, Interview 4, 11 January 1994, 29-30; Gates-Moresi, 124-126.  Regrettably, in their haste, they installed the shack backwards with the rear of the building facing outward into the display hall.  These errors were only discovered a decade later, when the museum hired a historian to verify the shack’s authenticity as well as locate the appropriate artifacts to include with it.  Unfortunately, a historian’s recommendations for how to more accurately portray African American daily life were never implemented due to a lack of funding. Return to text

20 For example, among these acquisitions were a “large collection of sweetgrass baskets” from Charleston, SC, representing African cultural survivals.  Curator Richard E. Ahlborn recalled that these “may have been our first concerted effort to represent the enormous impact of African traditions brought to and sustained under the most horrible circumstances one can imagine–slavery–actually to the present day.”  SIA, Record Unit 9603, African-American Exhibits at the Smithsonian Interviews, Interview 1, Richard E. Ahlborn, 30 June 1999, 12.  Return to text

21Gates-Moresi, 134-135. Return to text

22   SIA, Record Unit 9603, African-American Exhibits at the Smithsonian Interviews, Interview 6, Keith Melder, interviewee, 14 September 1999, 28. Return to text

23  Ibid., 32. Return to text

24 Cited in Gates-Moresi, 103-104. Return to text

25 SIA, Record Unit 9603, African-American Exhibits at the Smithsonian Interviews, Interview 6, Keith Melder, interviewee, 14 September 1999, 16-17.; Gates-Moresi, 140-141; Kylie Message, “Commemorating Civil Rights and Reform Movements at the National Museum of American History,” in Representing Enslavement and Abolition in Museums: Ambiguous Engagements,  Laurajane Smith, et. al., eds. (New York: Routledge, 2011), 314. Return to text

26 Jean M. White, “'Nation of Nations,' From 6,000 Perspectives,” Washington Post, 9 June 1976, C1; Gates-Moresi, 189. Return to text

27 Peter C. Marzio, ed., A Nation of Nations: The People Who Came to America as Seen Through Objects, Prints, and Photographs at the Smithsonian Institution (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1976), v-xii. Return to text

28 White, C1. Return to text

29 SIA, Record Unit 331, National Museum of History and Technology, Dept. of Cultural History, Records, Box 3, Folder 16, Memorandum, Daniel J. Boorstin to S. Dillon Ripley.  5 May 1969. Return to text

30  SIA, Record Unit 9603, African-American Exhibits at the Smithsonian Interviews, Interview 6, Keith Melder, interviewee, 14 September 1999,  31-32. Return to text

31  SIA, Record Unit 7322, Watkins, C. Malcolm, C. Malcolm Watkins Papers, Box 22, Folder 1, “Smithsonian Institution, American Revolution Bicentennial Programs 1971-1976.”; SIA, Record Unit 331, National Museum of History and Technology, Dept. of Cultural History, Records, Box 3, Folder 16, Memorandum, Silvio A. Bedini to NMHT Chairmen, 25 August 1971. Return to text

32 SIA, Record Unit 331, National Museum of History and Technology, Dept. of Cultural History, Records, Box 3, Folder 16, Malcolm Watkins to Harold Skramstad, 6 December 1971. Return to text

33 SIA, Record Unit 7322, Watkins, C. Malcolm, C. Malcolm Watkins Papers, Box 22, Folder 3, Preliminary Script for “Nation of Nations: An Exhibition on the American people at The Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of History and Technology for the American Bicentennial Year,” January 1973, 5. Return to text

35IbidReturn to text

36 SIA, Record Unit 331, National Museum of History and Technology, Dept. of Cultural History, Records, Box 3, Folder 16, Malcolm Watkins to Harold Skramstad, 3 February 1973. Return to text

37 IbidReturn to text

38 IbidReturn to text

39 IbidReturn to text

40 SIA, Record Unit 9603, African-American Exhibits at the Smithsonian Interviews, Interview 4, Ellen Roney Hughes, interviewee, 4 August 1999, 13. Return to text

41 SIA, Record Unit 9586, C. Malcolm Watkins Interviews, Research File, Pamela Henson, eulogy for C. Malcolm Watkins Memorial, 30 May 2001. Return to text