AIC's 41st Annual Meeting – Objects Session, May 30, “Bon Appétit? Plastics in Julia Child’s Kitchen” by Mary Coughlin

I wonder what Julia would think about the current state of her kitchenware?  In Mary Coughlin’s talk, “Bon Appétit? Plastics in Julia Child’s Kitchen,” Mary discussed issues she and her Museum Studies class faced while inside the Julia Child Kitchen exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH).  Mary is an objects conservator and professor at George Washington University.  Her class carried out a condition survey of the exhibition as it transitioned from its original installation into part of the new FOOD: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000 exhibition.
The kitchen was originally located in Julia Child’s Cambridge, Massachusetts home from 1961 to 2001 and was the setting of her last three television shows.  When Julia donated it to NMAH, the museum accessioned over 1,200 objects, ranging from spatulas to a Rubik’s Cube.  The kitchen was installed in the museum as Bon Appétit! Julia Child’s Kitchen, a temporary exhibition that was probably only meant to be on display for less than one year.  But as is often the case with well-loved exhibitions, it ended up being on display for a decade.
Mary’s class worked within the exhibition, actually in Julia’s kitchen on view to the public, as they carried out the condition survey.  It seems as though many of the museum visitors also wished to step inside the kitchen, as Mary humorously noted that they often heard the thud of visitors walking into the glass partitions.  In an effort to provide outreach to the public, a curator was posted outside the kitchen to discuss the project with visitors.  In addition, the students wrote blog posts about their experiences which can be viewed on the NMAH’s blog “O Say Can You See?” (For example, see one student’s post here).
After the condition survey, the class made recommendations for ways to incorporate preventive conservation into the new exhibition.  Two of the main problems encountered in the old exhibition were dust and degraded plastics.  The old exhibition did not have a ceiling, and the vents above the kitchen created a significant dust problem.  This issue was particularly problematic considering that many of the plastics within the kitchen are oozing and sticky.  The new installation is sealed on the top, and during Mary’s evaluation of the new exhibition six months later, she found a significant decrease in dust accumulation.  One problem area was a large gap around one of the glass door covers, but it has since been gasketed to create a better seal.
Mary’s class also found evidence of fading and discoloration in plastics.  For instance, the top surfaces of a set of rubber kitchen gloves had turned black, while the undersides remained blue. Mary placed mylar barriers underneath and between problematic plastics to prevent sticking and oozing on surrounding objects.  And when the gloves were reinstalled in the new exhibition, the top glove was flipped in order to display the blue side, following the request of the curator.
Mary mentioned the curator’s desire for authenticity within the exhibition and that they wished to have all the original objects on display within the kitchen.  While Mary’s class found evidence of plastic degradation, the museum continues to display the degrading plastics in a relatively similar environment as the previous exhibition (although the HVAC system is improved and dust is being mitigated.  She also noted that the degrading objects were not causing damage to other objects).  Mary’s talk raised questions that many museums and conservators must face, such as authenticity versus preservation?  Does displaying original degraded objects or surrogate objects in good condition change the meaning or importance of the work?   The answers to these questions may also be different within the context of a history museum as opposed to an art museum.
As I viewed images of oozing spatulas that are not dissimilar to those sold today, one of the questions I had (but didn’t get a chance to ask Mary) is whether there was any discussion with the curators about purchasing surrogate objects either to be displayed now or in the future?  Maybe similar objects could be purchased now, while they are still readily available, and stored in more optimal conditions (dark, cold storage?) to be displayed later if needed.
I can’t help but wonder, what will the plastics in the exhibition look like in another ten years?  And what would Julia Child think?  Bon Appétit?