Volume 12, Issue 39 ~ September 23-29, 2004
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The Making of a Smithsonian Exhibit
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photo courtesy of Paula Johnson
Paula Johnson was thrilled to work with Julia Child in creating the exhibit Bon Appetit! Julia Child’s Kitchen at the Smithsonian.
The Making of a Smithsonian Exhibit
Calvert Countian Paula Johnson Puts History on Display
by Becky Bartlett Hutchison

Some of us are lucky to visit the Smithsonian once a year or so, but Paula Johnson gets to go there every day — and get paid for it. The cultural historian commutes from her Port Republic home in Calvert County to the internationally renowned Smithsonian Institution, where she is one of more than 280 employees and 26 curators in the National Museum of American History. Her job on the National Mall at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue can be as simple as opening a box and picking up a whisk, as she did in unpacking Julia Child’s mementos. Or it can be as complex as orchestrating the move of large objects — like the commercial shipping containers she needed for the America on the Move exhibit — from all over the country.

Big or little, each job is part of what it takes to create an exhibit. Some take years to get from idea to opening day. Others require moving quickly to take advantage of one-time opportunities. Speed was in order in August, 2001, when Johnson and her colleagues heard about the rare chance to capture the kitchen of cultural food icon and cooking-show pioneer Julia Child, who died last month two days short of her 92nd birthday.

The Cook
Julia Child is moving to California at the end of the year. That’s the scuttlebutt that sent Paula Johnson and her coworkers scurrying. Retiring at 89, America’s favorite cook had bequeathed her Cambridge, Massachusetts, house, complete with its famous kitchen, to her alma mater. Smith College would sell the house, and anything worth saving had to be removed by December’s end.

“There are a lot of stories in the kitchen, a lot of things that speak to Julia’s role in American culinary history,” Johnson remembers.

With just a few months, the clock was ticking, calling for quick action to save Julia’s kitchen and bring it to the American History Museum.

First, Johnson and her colleagues had to find if the rumors were true, and what better way than to ask the person who would know best: Julia Child. So they sped to Cambridge to meet the celebrated chef. Sitting around her famous kitchen table, they talked about what Julia planned for her house, and Child wondered why the Smithsonian would want her kitchen and what the exhibit would be like.

The kitchen represents Child’s role in America’s culinary history. It’s where she prepared meals for family and friends and where she taught cooking lessons over the years. It’s served as the setting for her last three cooking series, and people feel like they know the kitchen. Johnson and her colleagues assured Julia that her message of cooking and sharing food, and its importance to life, would be shown. All of the kitchen would be displayed, from the chef’s knife to the kitchen sink.

Understanding that the exhibit will center on the much larger story of cooking in America — not just her — Julia said, “Well, go ahead.”

One step in the making of an exhibit ended, and another step began.

In August of 2001, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity knocked on the door of the Smithsonian Institution: Capturing the kitchen of food icon and cooking-show pioneer Julia Child.
The Curator
The Smithsonian Institution is a big place. Eighteen museum buildings plus storage facilities in and around Washington and New York house more than 143 million objects, specimens and pieces of art. Paula Johnson is a curator in one section of the Smithsonian’s 176,000-square-foot National Museum of American History. In the museum’s History of Technology division, she works with the collections of the museum’s transportation, natural resources and food and technology sections.

Johnson has been at this job since 1991, after 10 years at Calvert Marine Museum, where she cultivated her love of the water and honed her expertise in maritime history and communities, marine resources and North American watercraft.

When the chance of a lifetime — Julia’s own kitchen — comes up, Johnson is at work on the America on the Move exhibit, a 26,000-square-foot exhibition that tells American history through the story of its vehicles and the people who used them. For two years she has been working on her portions of this huge exhibit — portraying the impact of container shipping of goods on the San Francisco port in the 1960s and presenting the role of international commerce and cultural interaction at the port of New York in the 1920s. Opening day is scheduled for November 2003.

The immediacy of preserving Julia’s kitchen outweighs the further two years left before the transportation exhibit’s opening date. Johnson chooses the kitchen over a steam engine and shipping container.

She joins the team working on the Julia Child kitchen exhibit. With her interest in folklore, the traditions and culture surrounding food and its preparation, and how food brings people together, she says she “feels honored” to sit in Julia’s kitchen talking to the woman herself.

At the Calvert Marine Museum, Johnson liked meeting Patuxent River locals and learning from them not only the water business but also their cultures and traditions. She brought her interest in folklore and culture to the Smithsonian, where she gathered oral histories of Smith Islanders and watermen.

People have “wonderful stories about their lives and traditions,” Johnson says, adding that she considers herself fortunate to share and spread those stories.

Now, Johnson’s job is telling one of American’s favorite stories. As part of a large interdisciplinary team that will nurture and guide the Julia Child kitchen exhibit from its infancy to its completion, she will share Julia’s stories with millions of visitors.

The Birth of an Exhibit
New Smithsonian exhibits are percolating every day. Two new American History Museum exhibits will open before the end of 2004; meanwhile, seven exhibits closed this year. In the life of a museum, one exhibit must close so that a new one can open.

First comes the idea. It floats around in someone’s mind until it gels. Then, according to Johnson, “you write it up.” No matter how good an idea, approval depends on such factors as available floor space, potential funding and how well the proposed project fits the museum’s priorities.

Some exhibits begin with a collection already stored at the Smithsonian; most exhibits, including the Star Spangled Banner exhibit, begin that way. Or an exhibit can begin with an upcoming anniversary of an important event, such as the recent 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. Or it can start when a unique and unplanned opportunity presents itself, such as the pending sale of Julia Child’s house.

At other times, an old exhibit needs updating. That’s how America on the Move began. The 40-year-old display needed refurbishing. The trains, automobiles, trucks and other large transportation-related artifacts were still popular with visitors, but they needed a story. Visitors were asked what they would like to see in a new exhibit, and they said they wanted to see how transportation shaped American history.

What happens next, whether it’s America on the Move or any exhibit, Johnson says is “you put the idea forward to a committee. The committee has the big picture of what’s going on in the museum and will approve it or not.”

In 1999, historians, curators, geographers, designers and transportation experts gathered to consider how to put together America on the Move. What they needed to define, Johnson explains, was “what is the story, what are the objects and what’s the point?”

The On the Move committee proposed an overall story, how it would be presented, what artifacts to use and how the space would be designed. One of the three exhibition designs from that meeting was revised into the final exhibit. Four themes were chosen, with 15 representing not only a specific event or era but a specific time of day and year.

Next, artifacts are chosen, along with a plan on how to move and display them. Stories are diagrammed and a floor plan is drawn.

Working together are interdisciplinary teams: project managers, project assistants, collections managers, design managers, project historians and still others. Some research the appropriate sounds, sights and clothing for each scene. Others analyze what physical changes in the exhibit hall are needed, how lighting, plumbing, computer and visual requirements will be handled. Still others figure out the best way to engage visitors with the exhibit.

Display text, videos, sounds and interactive displays come next. Information is presented in various ways to satisfy different learning styles. Next a more detailed design is drawn for each scene.

Finally, all working hard to finish on time, team members focus on what they must do to get the exhibit ready for opening day.

To carry out her part of each exhibit, curator Johnson wears many hats. She works with a team to research an exhibit’s themes and topics in depth, select the items that best tell the story and help plan the design. With the collections management section, she works to inventory, tag, pack, and unpack artifacts. She writes scripts for displays and lectures planned for museum visitors.

Her work varies from day to day, but Johnson says, “It’s never dull. It’s great collections, wonderful colleagues. Exhibits are intensely collaborative, and that’s what makes them strong and communicative.”

Back to Julia’s House
Once Julia agrees to give her kitchen to the Smithsonian, Paula Johnson and her coworkers photograph, measure and record the location and description of every item in the room, from the crockful of wooden spoons sitting on the counter and the baking sheets hidden inside a lower cabinet to the kitchen table and Julia’s prized six-burner Garland stove.

Everybody on the team labors to inventory the kitchen. One person videotapes and another photographs everything, including the contents of each drawer and every cabinet. Someone draws a floor plan of the kitchen, and the team decides on a numbering system. Occasionally an unidentified kitchen gadget is extracted from a drawer or cabinet and put aside.

From time to time, Julia comes down the elevator from her home office, looks through the growing pile of unknown items and names each and its use. It takes a day and a half to inventory about 1,200 items. Nothing perishable will be taken back to the museum, so perishable items haven’t been included in the inventory.

Inventoried items range from cookbooks, chairs, wooden spoons, refrigerator magnets, even cabinets and a dishwasher. Nothing will be moved to the museum until after an interview with Julia in the kitchen.

Geoff Drummond, producer of the PBS cooking series filmed in Julia’s kitchen, promises to return in September to film the interview.

The day all the crews and Julia agree upon is September 11, 2001.

September 11, 2001
First thing in the morning, the sound and film equipment is set up in the kitchen and ready to go. Johnson’s team is waiting with the other two crews — sound and film — for Julia to come downstairs to start the interview. Bagels, cream cheese and double lattes provide a morning boost.

While waiting, somebody turns on the television, and the tragedies in New York and Washington stun everyone. Johnson and her team are from D.C., the sound crew from Boston and the film crew from New York. Everyone reaches for a cell phone, but no one gets through.

Julia, too, has heard on her radio what has happened. She joins the others at the kitchen table, watching the television. “Let’s talk about this,” she says, setting the tone for the day.

“Well, it does seem to be strange to be doing this when the world is changing,” she admits. “But we have a job to do. Why don’t we get started and take frequent breaks throughout the day, because I know you’re all worried.”

This interview is like no other Johnson has heard.

Against the background of terror and catastrophe, Julia speaks intimately about the design of her kitchen and what it means to her, recounting stories about the people who visited, the celebrities who had cooked and eaten there and the way she and her husband Paul designed the kitchen in 1961. Because Julia is six feet two inches tall, the countertops are 38 inches high, two inches higher than in a standard kitchen.

Johnson and Rayna Green sit at the table across from Julia, listening and asking questions. The sound and film crew are silent while Julia picks up the kitchen tools she has carefully laid on the table and tells their stories.

The team has selected utensils, and Julia shares a story about every object she picks up. She reminisces about purchasing one of the items at a Paris flea market in the 1940s and remembers receiving others from friends throughout the world. She talks about the signaling mirror, found in her kitchen junk drawer, that she used while working for the OSS in World War II.

Before Julia Child was a cook, she was a secretary and advertising copywriter in New York. In 1942, she took the Civil Service exam to do her part for the war effort. From typist in the Department of State’s Office of War Information, she moved to the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency. On assignment in Ceylon (today’s Sri Lanka), she met Paul Child, who was also in the OSS. When they were transferred to China, Julia discovered her interest in food. After she and Paul moved to Paris, her interest bloomed into love.

At the end of this extraordinary September 11, the interview team sits around the table, the very one that is slated for the Smithsonian exhibit. They look at each other and say, “Whew! What is happening?”

Child says, “You know, this reminds me of another time. This reminds me of 1963 when President Kennedy was assassinated. The neighbors came over here, and we sat around this very kitchen table watching the television trying to make sense of what was happening.”

Everyone eventually gets through on their cell phones. Their loved ones are okay.

November – December 2001
It takes two weeks to dismantle everything in the kitchen. The job begins in November. Johnson’s Smithsonian colleague Rayna Green is the project manager. On this trip, the team packs and moves all the small things in the kitchen: knives, refrigerator magnets, cookbooks, junk-drawer objects. No item is packed unless it’s clean. By the end of the day, everyone has dishpan hands. Each item is keyed to its location in Julia’s kitchen, wrapped securely, put in boxes for the move and shipped to its new home in Washington, D.C.

Unlike most exhibits, this project doesn’t have a budget since everything happened so fast. Usually the Smithsonian museum’s development office helps raise money for exhibits. This exhibit goes forward because people want to pitch in because they’re so excited that they can’t help themselves. Donors seem to come forward as they’re needed. One donor contributes packing materials and shipping.

At the second week of work, in December, another project manager, Nanci Edwards, arrives with the museum’s historic restoration crew. They take out and pack the cabinets, the molding around the doors, the large Garland stove and then all the other big pieces. They try to take out the linoleum covering the floor but discover the tiles have asbestos adhesive. The floor is left behind.

The team takes a little sample of linoleum and tries to find it through several manufacturers, but none make it any more, so a picture is taken to make a computer pattern. A printout is then made and put on the floor. It looks like the real thing, but it’s only paper. “Now it’s a ‘socks only’ exhibit,” says Johnson.

December 2001 – March 2002
Luckily, an empty gallery is waiting for Julia Child’s kitchen.

Fifty boxes are carted into an empty open space where the exhibit will be. For the next four months, from February to June, 2002, the museum staff unpacks the 50 boxes in front of museum visitors.

Through exhibit windows, visitors see the boxes on the floor and watch the items as they are unwrapped, measured, described, photographed and catalogued. In February 2002, the unpacking itself becomes an exhibit called What’s Cooking?, which closed in June 2002 for the opening of Bon Appétit!

What’s Cooking? Julia Child’s Kitchen at the Smithsonian appeases universal curiosity; visitors get to be part of the discovery. The staff is just as excited, even though they know what’s coming. “It was always a thrill to unpack all the items and get a sense of Julia’s things,” says Johnson.

Once all the items are unpacked and completely arranged, the final exhibit Bon Appétit! Julia Child’s Kitchen at the Smithsonian is ready to open, a little less than a year from the day it all began.

The 14-by-30-foot kitchen is arranged exactly as it was in the Child home in Cambridge. The kitchen table sits in the center of the floor, the refrigerator magnets are in their proper places, the crockery holding spoons, forks and other utensils is sitting on the counter. Even the Garland range stands in its proper place.

Three viewports corresponding to the three original kitchen doorways allow visitors a clear view into the kitchen. A Plexiglas wall to the left of the kitchen replaces the wall where Julia hung her French copper pots, which are absent as they were donated to The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts in Napa, California. The location of each pot hung is etched into the Plexiglas so visitors can see the number and shape of the pots in Julia’s collection.

Along the exhibit walls are a visual biography containing information about Julia’s early life and career, her Le Cordon Bleu diploma, unusual kitchen gadgets, a 22-page illustrated French bread recipe and pictures of Julia with her husband Paul. On a nearby monitor, video clips from her cooking shows play.

Julia’s Kitchen Reopens
Each exhibit’s opening celebrations are unique to the theme and collection. However, the pattern remains the same. Press releases announce the opening date; receptions draw local and national celebrities.

Opening day for the Julia Child kitchen exhibit is similar yet different. It is on August 19, 2002, within days of Julia’s 90th birthday. The mayor of Washington, D.C., proclaims August 18 Julia Child Day, and the City Council designates August 18 through 24 Julia Child Week. Thirty-eight renowned chefs from the Washington-Baltimore region come to honor Julia and prepare food for the opening reception.

As visitors get their first look at the exhibit, Johnson and her team listen. “The thing that always excites me is seeing how the public interacts with our programs,” Johnson says.

Finally, the team that has rebuilt Julia’s kitchen gets to hear their visitors’ memories of first attempts at following Julia’s recipes and how she taught them that it was okay to make mistakes. They hear comments about how exciting it is to see what tools Julia used, and how neat it is to get a good look at her kitchen.

Johnson says by listening to visitors at Julia Child’s kitchen exhibit, she was able to understand what Julia meant to people. “From listening to our visitors, she had a great impact on so many people, young and old, male and female, people from the U.S., people from abroad. And people were very enthusiastic about sharing their stories about how she gave them the courage to try something new. People just loved her and her humor in the kitchen. She was so accessible. They loved her personality and the fact that she encouraged them to try new things, then gave them instructions on exactly how to do it.”

It’s gratifying, Johnson says, to see how popular the exhibit is, with visitors staying to get a close look at the cooking utensils, the French bread recipe and the biography of Julia before becoming a famous chef. Johnson sees “strangers sharing cooking stories with each other, reaching into some part of their memories,” and talking about how Julia has affected them.

No Time for Rest
Finally, opening day for the Julia Child kitchen exhibit has come and gone. All the celebrations and proclamations are over. But Johnson doesn’t have time to put her feet up and relax. She has little more than a year to finish preparations for the America on the Move opening day.

See for Yourself
Julia Child’s Kitchen remains so popular that it may remain on view long past its scheduled closing two years hence in September, 2005.
But don’t take a chance. See it at Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The museum is directly across the Mall from the Smithsonian Metro stop on the orange and blue lines. The museum is open 10am to 5:30pm daily (except Christmas), and free, as are all Smithsonian museums: 202-357-2700 or 202-357-2020 (recorded message).
For a preview, log onto the on-line exhibit at www.americanhistory.si.edu/juliachild.
For the story behind the exhibit, visit the award-winning related website What’s Cooking, Julia Child’s Kitchen at the Smithsonian (www.americanhistory.si.edu/kitchen), which companies vied to design for free. Here you’ll find the project diary and hear Julia’s kitchen stories.
When you visit, don’t forget to stop by the America on the Move gallery. Learn more about the exhibit at www.americanhistory.si.edu/onthemove.

About the Author
Becky Bartlett Hutchison is a former Maryland preservation planner converting her love for history, anthropology and archaeology into stories of how our future rises from our past. Her last story for Bay Weekly was “New Digs at Old London Town:” Vol. XII, No. 26, June 24, 2004.

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