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10 Questions for the Smithsonian Curators Who Cooked Up Julia Child's Kitchen Exhibit

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When our inventory was complete, we returned to Washington, D.C., ready to request permission to collect the more than 1,000 items that made up the kitchen. On September 18, 2001, the museum's collections committee voted to accept the donation of the kitchen and the rest, as they say, is history.

GL: What was Julia's reaction to your proposal of a donation? Was she surprised by your interest?

PJ: She did seem surprised at the interest, and we learned later that she phoned her niece to discuss our request. Julia was very thoughtful and asked us a lot of questions. We spoke about NMAH and our work documenting American food and wine history. She read us correctly: Our intent was not to focus on her celebrity, but on her work environment and what it represented, and how it reflected her role as a cook, teacher, mentor, and woman who felt passionately about food. We also reassured her that we would not damage the house—that is, we would not remove the walls and windows and floorboards!

But Julia had a soft spot for the Smithsonian that dated back to her work in the OSS [Office of Strategic Services] during World War II. It was during that time she met Mary Livingston and Livingston's future husband, S. Dillon Ripley, who served as the Secretary of the Smithsonian from 1964 to 1984. And in the 1970s, the National Air and Space Museum showed a video of Julia cooking up "Primordial Soup" in "The Universe" gallery. We believe her soft spot for the Smithsonian played into her ultimate decision to donate the kitchen.

GL: Can you describe the process of preparing the kitchen for display the second time? And will there be any changes?

PJ: We didn't catalog everything again, but we examined every object and prepared condition reports. We de-installed the kitchen in January 2012, capturing it on video. Students from George Washington University's Museum Studies program examined every object, looking for signs of wear or deterioration. The students helped the museum identify those objects that needed special attention—typically a good cleaning—prior to going back on display.

In May 2012, the historic-restoration specialists who had taken the kitchen apart in Cambridge started installing the large architectural elements—the cabinets, sink, and countertops—in the new space. In early July, the major appliances—the big Garland range, the refrigerator, convection oven, and ice maker—were carefully put into place. The smaller items followed, including her pots and pans, knives, countertop utensils, and the like.

The major difference visitors will notice with the new installation is that they can now walk around the perimeter of the room. We also added new viewing portals by opening the kitchen windows above the sink and countertops. This will allow up-close-and-personal views of some of Julia's favorite tools, including her KitchenAid stand mixer and food processor. Our aim is to keep what people loved about Bon Appétit, including the video clips from Kitchen Wisdom, and to make the space as welcoming and engaging as Julia herself.

GL: Julia's kitchen is now part of a new exhibition, Food: Transforming the American Table 1950–2000, which tells the story of American food and wine in recent decades. What is the bigger picture, and how does Julia Child fit into it?

PJ: Food is a very hot topic these days, and there are many ways people are becoming more involved with this fundamental, essential topic, with books, blogs, television celebrity chefs, and even the First Lady's health initiatives. Here at NMAH, we've been working behind the scenes for many years conducting research, collecting artifacts and documents, and consulting with advisors to develop a project that will engage the public in an exploration of food and wine in America.

Our conceptual framework is: Between 1950 and 2000, new technologies and social and cultural changes transformed how and what we eat. This period of profound change in American life was characterized by the widespread adoption of new technologies and innovations in food production, but also by big demographic and cultural changes that influenced American food and foodways. Among the topics we'll be exploring are some of the new foods and flavors introduced by immigrants from Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Central and South America; the postwar shift to suburban living and the rise of outdoor grilling and male grillmasters; the impact of counterculture movements on food production and the roots of the "good food" movement; and shifts in gender roles as well as workplace and family patterns that influenced what's on the table, who's in the kitchen, who's at the table, and many more markers of the reshaping of the American table.

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