Kitchens then and now
Museum display tracks progress from mud hut to microwave
By Linda A. Thompson-Odum email@example.com
Visitors to the new “America’s Kitchens” exhibit at the Museum of New Hampshire History in Concord are greeted by the E. B. White quote, “On days when warmth is the most important need of the human heart, the kitchen is the place you can find it; it dries the wet socks, it cools the hot little brain.”
The exhibit’s mission is to outline the centrality of the kitchen as it relates to American life, which includes the regional and historical differences and the technological changes through time.
“It’s logical that the kitchen is the center of the home. It’s all about food, which is basic to human existence. And anytime you have food, it’s related to social contact,” said director of collections and exhibitions Wesley Balla.
Visitors will see kitchen vignettes that range from Colonial times to the modern day. Some displays also highlight regional kitchen variations between New England kitchens and ones found in the South, Midwest and Southwest. Others show advances in kitchen technology. For example, a food preservation display moves from a wooden barrel (an Old Sturbridge Village reproduction) and 1890s icebox to a 1930s and a 1960s refrigerator.
There are a number of interactive displays, such as the one near the exhibit of historic cookbooks, where visitors can page through some books and copy recipes onto provided cards. Another area allows visitors to write down their favorite kitchen story, including disasters, to be archived. A different display lets them explore kitchen design. Visitors may get the feel of churning butter or try their hand at grinding corn on a heavy stone with a stone roller the way it was done by women in New Mexico.
Balla pointed out the exhibit shows the ways social, cultural and economic forces change the kitchen over time. He noted how the kitchen started as the centerpiece of the home but then lost some of that status when the movement to fast food shifted the food focus out of the home and family rooms took the kitchen’s place. It returned with the trend toward big designer kitchens, and remains as the current economy forces people to prepare more meals at home to save money.
“Aside from the core point of the exhibit, visitors get to see those changes that occurred and how people and cultures created their own interpretations of the kitchen,” Balla said.
The display that seems to elicit the most comments so far is the Koravos Kitchen, a remake of a post-World War II kitchen from Andover, Mass. The turquoise metal cabinets and the stainless steel appliances remind many people of their parents’ or grandparents’ kitchens.
“America’s Kitchens” was organized by Historic New England in Boston, the oldest and largest regional preservation organization in the United States. New Hampshire is the first to get the exhibit, where it will remain until January 17, 2010. Then it will move on to the Long Island Museum of American Art, History and Carriages in New York, and the Heritage Museum & Gardens in Massachusetts.
To go along with the exhibit is the new book America’s Kitchens by Nancy Carlisle and Melinda Nasardinov with Jennifer Pustz. Much like the display, the book discusses what it was like to live and work in kitchens that were very different from the ones of today. The book costs $34.95 and is available at the museum and at www.nhhistory.org.
“Even though a lot of people still cook from raw ingredients, we don’t have the skill sets that people once needed in the kitchen, such as how to handle a fire and where to place the pot,” Balla said. “Go even farther back and they were killing their own meat and growing their own food. The exhibit helps people see the roots of their food, cooking and kitchens.”