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 1976.
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 Smithsonian Archives.