Prep work in Julia Child’s kitchen

Recent visitors to the Bon Appétit! exhibition have observed the first steps of a major change planned for the display of Julia Child’s kitchen at the Smithsonian. Later this year we will pack up the hundreds of tools, gadgets, appliances, knick-knacks, and furniture in Julia Child’s kitchen from her Cambridge, Massachusetts, home and move everything very carefully to a new exhibition space. There, behind-the-scenes and over the course of several months, we will reinstall the kitchen, making sure each object is exactly where Julia herself had placed it before she donated the entire kitchen to the Smithsonian in 2001.

Julia Child's Kitchen at the Smithsonian
We will also develop a new exhibition around the kitchen, broadening the scope to include an exploration of how new technologies and cultural changes in the 1950 to 2000 period (the same timeframe as the objects in Julia’s kitchen) transformed how and what we eat. In essence, we will be looking at the broader story of food—its production, distribution, preparation, and consumption—in late-twentieth-century America, and exploring, in part, how Julia Child and her kitchen reflect and represent those larger strands of history.

A project like this involves a team of people and recently we have been ably assisted by five graduate students and their professor from George Washington University’s Museum Studies Program. Every Wednesday afternoon between January 17 and April 20, the students donned gloves and socks to work inside the kitchen. Their mission: to examine each of the objects and to complete a report on its condition. This work was part of a course on “Preventive Conservation,” the practice of creating a stable, safe, and appropriate environment for museum objects to ensure their long-term preservation. Since the kitchen’s 900-some objects have been on view for nine years, it was time to check on their condition as the first step in preparing for the big move. The students’ reports will help us determine whether any of the objects need special treatment, care, or cleaning before we begin packing. As part of their experience, we’ve asked the students to reflect on the unique opportunity to examine Julia Child’s tools and kitchen equipment. Future posts will feature their thoughts over the coming weeks.

Curator Steve Velasquez (middle) and George Washington University Assistant Professor Mary Coughlin (right) introduce GWU graduate students to Julia Child’s kitchen
Curator Steve Velasquez (middle) and George Washington University Assistant Professor Mary Coughlin (right) introduce GWU graduate students to Julia Child’s kitchen. Photo by Cory A. Bernat

While working inside the kitchen, the students were supervised by their professor, Mary Coughlin, and Curator Steve Velasquez. At the same time, another member of the curatorial team stood near the kitchen door to explain why people were moving about inside the kitchen, which is usually viewed only through acrylic viewports. When I took my turn at the door, the role felt familiar. As one of the curators involved in collecting the kitchen and processing the objects in front of the public in 2001, I fell easily into the rhythm of re-engaging with the public. Over the weeks I met many wonderful people, including:

  • two students who were completing their training at the Le Cordon Bleu, in Paris, and who posed for pictures with Julia’s Cordon Bleu diploma;
  • a woman who spoke with great enthusiasm about how for years she had religiously timed her housework so she could watch The French Chef on public television;
  • the family who had just acquired both volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and who were planning to try a recipe together;
  • the many young people who thought it might be cool to be a graduate student if you could do a project like this;
  • the various people who wanted to know more about the condition reporting process and what we were finding;
  • and members of the public who were already looking forward to visiting the museum again when the new exhibition opens in late summer of 2012.

As our plans develop we will provide updates on the big move and the exhibition. Check in each Friday over the next few weeks for reports from the students.

Paula Johnson is Curator in the Division of Work and Industry at the National Museum of American History.

Posted at 12:42 pm EDT in Food History,From the Collections