LIZ WILLIAMS is the director and president of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans. Besides her work with SoFAB, she is a lawyer who writes about the legal aspects of food, reflecting culture, policy and economics.
In 1853 the historic preservation movement was created by Ann Pamela Cunningham – establishing the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association – to save and renovate Mount Vernon. This was an important step in recognizing the importance of preserving our history, starting with the home of the first president. This was an immensely important recognition of the need to preserve buildings and neighborhoods and the role of buildings and neighborhoods in history. They provide a context for history.
Following the establishment of this private historic preservation movement, women rallied in saving other historic landmark structures at Valley Forge and the home of Andrew Jackson. The federal government, in large part motivated by the success of the grassroots movement of historic preservation, began to preserve important natural sites and militarily significant sites, such as battlefields. This led to the establishment of national parks. Finally in the early twentieth century the movement became local, with the establishment of historic preservation districts and sites within cities, which preserved buildings within neighborhoods. Finally the National Park Service and historic district tax credits (the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966) have continued to drive the preservation and the restoration of many historic buildings.
There have been many lessons learned since 1853 about the standards of preservation and the surprises which actual historical research reveals, as opposed to what our mythos had created. Certainly the efforts at the early decoration of historic Williamsburg in contrast with the current manifestations of the same sites illustrate what we continue to learn about life in early times. That same contrast between early attitudes about preservation and modern attitudes leads us to my personal concern about the preservation of house museums in particular and historic sites in general. Save the kitchen!! and the smokehouse and the pantry and the barn and other outbuildings related to food and drink.
In 2007 the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association began the construction of George Washington’s distillery that had graced the grounds during his lifetime. This action makes real the fact – that we already knew – that George Washington produced spirits on his estate. The man raised a glass. But seeing the building where this took place (or at least a reconstruction) for many people drives home the fact. The Ladies’ Association has selected a date in time as the point of restoration. This is a common and necessary step in the restoration of house museums, given that buildings are constantly subject to change by their owners. The distillery fits within their restoration date.
One of the important facts of the change that takes place in a house as people live in it is that kitchens have probably been a source of renovation and renewal in the normal evolution of the use of the house. Technology has changed in the kitchen so that it often bears little resemblance to the kitchen that was originally installed in the house. Very often, as the house is upgraded old appliances are discarded, pumps and fireplaces are removed, and the look and use of a kitchen completely change. This caused many of the societies formed to preserve various houses to use the kitchens, usually much modernized and changed from the date they have chosen to restore, as offices. They removed all traces of the kitchen, and the house was presented without a kitchen. This was exacerbated by the aesthetic that emphasized the pretty parts of the historic presentation of the house. That means that the parlors, bedrooms, and dining rooms with pretty furniture, finished and embellished rooms, lovely draperies and carpeting, and beautiful table settings were presented, while the parts of the house that supported all of the beauty were ignored. This practice had the effect of creating a disembodied portrayal of life in the house: a house without cooking, but where food appeared on the table and a house without cleaning and polishing, but which appeared well maintained.
Today, with a desire to tell the full story of a house, many house museums are restoring kitchens, outbuildings (including privies), and barns. They are beginning to curate the story of the slaves and servants who made the house work on a day-to-day basis. They are also documenting the story of the wives who maintained and cooked in those houses that were not mansions with servants. This practice is making the complete life of the house known to visitors. But it is also preserving and documenting the simple and rough artifacts – often not the pretty ones – that supported this part of the life of the house. Because these artifacts, usually seen as merely practical implements, are often worn out through use, they are actually rarer than the utensils made of intrinsically valuable materials like silver or pewter.
If we can learn a lesson from this experience for historic houses, it is to try to preserve the kitchen and related service elements of an historic house from the beginning of the restoration. It is much harder to do that when those elements have been removed and must be restored. And in our own homes, when we live in an historic house, we should try to at least document what was in an old kitchen through photographs, and ask a museum if the artifacts which we are discarding in favor of modernization would be meaningful to preserve. Changing a living house is a part of the normal evolution of the home, but when we choose to live in an historic home, we do have an extra measure of responsibility to the preserve the past for the future. We can do that through documentation and donation of artifacts to appropriate institutions.
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