Bon appétit? Plastics in Julia Child’s kitchen

Mary Coughlin


In 2001, Julia Child donated the kitchen from her Cambridge, Massachusetts home that was the set for her cooking shows in the 1990s to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH). As a kitchen that was in use from 1961-2001, plenty of plastics ranging from silicone spatulas to a Rubik’s Cube came into the collection along with more traditional kitchen items.

Soon after the acquisition, NMAH opened the exhibition Bon Appétit! Julia Child’s Kitchen at the Smithsonian. What was meant to be a temporary exhibit proved so popular that it remained up for a decade. In 2010, NMAH staff began planning for a new exhibition space that will include the kitchen. The new exhibit, FOOD: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000 opened in November 2012. In preparation for the exhibit, in 2011 students from the Museum Studies Program at The George Washington University worked under the supervision of a professor and objects conservator, Mary Coughlin, and NMAH curators to assess the current condition of the objects and make recommendations to better incorporate preventive conservation into the new exhibit.

During the class, it was discovered that several of the plastics are not aging well. These included dish washing gloves that were originally blue but turned black on exposed surfaces, a plastic dish rack that is weeping,Julia’s personal phonebook encased in a degrading PVC binder, a bulb baster that is now completely rigid, and silicone spatulas, some of which have discolored while others are weeping. As some plastics age they can emit acidic vapor, so A-D (acid-detecting) Strips were used to monitor the plastics in the kitchen. Results from using the A-D Strips showed that several of the plastics are actively off-gassing acids.

The plastics in the kitchen proved to be a prime example of the issues that will be faced more and more as contemporary objects made of plastics enter museums. One hope is that the new exhibition’s improved lighting and environmental controls will at least not accelerate the rate of some of the degradation. A comparison between conditions in the old and new exhibitions will be presented.

The discussions between the curators, conservator, and students, who are studying to become collections managers, regarding whether or not to continue to display the degrading plastics were interesting. Conservators and collections managers generally do not want to leave an object on display when it is known to be degrading and has the potential to negatively impact nearby materials. But when considering the curatorial perspective, how much of an impact will be made by removing original artifacts? Do you replace them with reproductions? At what point is the kitchen no longer in its original state as used by Julia Child? The intersection of the wish to be as authentic as possible even if it means displaying deteriorating plastics and the desire to preserve these objects proved to be an intriguing aspect of this project.

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2013 | Indianapolis | Volume 20