As Ireland moves to Stage 3 of the Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business, the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life has reopened to the public on 29th July 2020, including the Kitchen Power exhibition.
Details of this reopening can be found on the Museum website, but they include increased cleaning and hygiene measures, a queue system for entry, physical distancing and the wearing of face masks. This also means that interactive elements of the exhibitions won’t be accessible for the moment, but will shortly appear on the museum website.
The good news is that the Kitchen Power exhibition run has been extended to January 8th 2021, so there will be a lot more time to visit. We are also planning some online events, so watch this space for details!
The Kitchen Power exhibition was launched on Friday 19th July by Mrs. Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland. Mrs. Robinson gave a speech where she linked the impact that rural electrification had on women in rural Ireland with the efforts to combat the climate crisis through feminist solutions, including access to water and electricity in undeveloped areas of the world. Despite some heavy rain, the launch was very well attended, including participants in both the oral history and textile art project, as well as local dignitaries.
Mary Robinson launching the Kitchen Power exhibition, with one of Olafur Eliasson’s Little Suns. Photo by Joseph O’Brien
L-R: Brigid O’Brien, ICA member and interview participant; Cllr Michael Kilcoyne, Cathaoirleach Castlebar Council; Noreen Durken, ICA member, interview and textile art project participant; Brendan Delany, ESB; Cllr Brendan Mulroy, Cathaoirleach of Mayo County Council; Mrs. Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland; Catherine Heaney, Chair of the Board of the National Museum of Ireland; Lynn Scarff, Director of the National Museum of Ireland; Noel Campbell, Curator, National Museum of Ireland – Country Life; Dr. Sorcha O’Brien, Curator, Kingston University, London. Photo courtesy of the NMI
Maura McGuinness presenting Mary Robinson with a textile craft kit. Photo by Joseph O’Brien
Sorcha O’Brien and interview participant Brigid O’Brien showing Mary Robinson the oral histories. Photo courtesy of the NMI
Lynda Dunne, Josephine Scannell, Mary Ann Egan and Colm Scannell inspecting the Kitchen Power exhibition. Photo courtesy of the NMI
The curatorial and design team L-R: Dr. Sorcha O’Brien, Kingston University, London; Noel Campbell, National Museum of Ireland – Country Life; Ann Scroope, Wendy Williams and Caroline O’Connor of Scroope Design
Oral history interview participants Biddle Lawlor and Rachel Botha, both from Kilkenny, at the Kitchen Power exhibition opening. Photo courtesy of Rachel Botha.
This work will go on display in July 2019 as part of the Kitchen Power exhibition, but we held a showcase of the work in the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life as part of the Bealtaine Festival 2019, which celebrates the arts and creativity as we age.
Electric Irish Homes project participants working with Anna Spearman and Sorcha O’Brien in An Grianán, August 2018
The project started with a two-day trip to An Grianán, the Irish Countrywomen’s Association (ICA) adult education college in Termonfeckin, County Louth, where Sorcha briefed the group on the research and Anna ran a series of creative workshops in response. This kicked off a series of workshops in the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life, which included writing workshops with Fiona Keane from SixPens Creative Writing, a tour of the museum stores, and experimentation with both paper and textiles.
Project participants working with Anna Spearman in the NMI Country Life, January 2019
As part of the Bealtaine Festival, we held a textile art project showcase in the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life at the end of May. Sorcha and project participant Noreen Durken were interviewed by Tommy Marren on Midwest Radio a few days before the event, which brought in a large crowd on a very wet day.
Audience at the Electric Irish Homes textile art showcase, May 2019
The showcase started with a talk from Sorcha about her research about women’s experiences of rural electrification, which was followed by Anna Spearman and participants Noreen Durken and Maura McGuinness speaking about their experiences of the textile art project. Dr Tara Byrne, Arts and Culture Programme Manager at Age & Opportunity and Artistic Director of the Bealtaine Festival, spoke about the festival and its role in creating wider access to the arts and creativity across Ireland.
Maura McGuinness talking about her involvement in the project, May 2019
The showcase also involved a preview screening of a short film about the project by Brian Cregan, and a display of the textile work carried out by the participants, as well as notebooks, test pieces and some examples of their own work.
Anna Spearman showing the participants’ individual pieces to Tara Byrne of Age & Opportunity
Project participants have also made up DIY craft packs, which will be available in the museum shop. These packs are based on four different designs produced by the group, and include a screen printed ‘pattern’ and a selection of fabric and threads for crafters to create their own versions of the designs. Photographs of the finished pieces can be uploaded to the museum Our Irish Heritage website, where they will be displayed later this year.
Electric Irish Homes DIY textile art pack, May 2019
The textile art work will be on display on Level B of the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life from the 20th July, as part of the Kitchen Power exhibition. Many thanks to the National Museum of Ireland Education department; AHRC; Age & Opportunity; Anna Spearman; Brian Cregan; Fiona Keane, SixPens Creative Writing; Pulled Screen Printing & Design; and particularly the project participants Patricia Ashby, Sheila Baynes, Noreen Durkan, Rose Geraghty, Mary Gillard, Rose Mac Hugh, Marian McDonagh, Maura McGuinness, Bridie McNeela, Breege Norris, Nora O’Leary, Mary O’Reilly, Teresa Quinn and Mary Walsh. All photographs by Brian Cregan.
Left to Right: Lynn Scarff, Dr. Sorcha O’Brien, Nigel Monaghan & Dr. Audrey Whitty
We’ve been working very hard behind the scenes, so have been rather quiet on here as a result. However, the National Museum of Ireland launched its 2019 exhibition programme this week, including the first press about our exhibition, which you can read about in their press release here: National Museum of Ireland reveals 2019 programme highlights (opens in new window)
Continuing on with my mission to survey the electrical appliances surviving in Irish museum collections, I recently visited the Irish Agricultural Museum in Wexford. Now, while an agricultural museum is probably not the first place you would think of when looking for domestic objects, but alongside the tractors and agricultural implements (of which they have an excellent collection), they also have a fine section on the Irish rural domestic interior.
The Irish Agricultural Museum is located outside of Wexford town in the grounds of Johnstown Castle, which are worth a visit for themselves, especially on a sunny day. Originally owned by a Norman family, the Esmondes, the estate is now owned by Teagasc, the Irish Agricultural and Food Development Authority, and it also houses one of their research facilities. The Agricultural Museum is housed in the old stable courtyard, which is enlivened by the local population of peacocks and peahens.
The highlight of the domestic collection display for me was the reconstruction of Irish country kitchens from the 19th and 20th centuries, particularly the post-war kitchen. This gallery puts the post-war kitchen in context, as you can see the development of kitchen tools and appliances over the years, but can also see what stayed the same, particularly the continuity of the country dresser, decorative ceramics and the Sacred Heart picture as a devotional focus (albeit with an electrical bulb instead of an oil lamp). Each of these kitchens is both a space for cooking and eating, as well as sitting and talking, although the focus of how they are laid out changes from the early hearth to the table in the centre of the room (and later the television set).
Mid-century Irish farmhouse kitchen reconstruction at the Irish Agricultural Museum
The post-war kitchen reconstruction showcases the introduction of electricity and running water as part of the rural electrification scheme, and is furnished with a number of electrical appliances as well as the use of new materials such as Formica. The fireplace is furnished with a stove for heating, connected to a hot water boiler, and the cooking has been moved over to a side section, separating the cooking and baking into a separate room from eating and conversation. The kitchen is well furnished with a single tub washing machine and a fridge, as well as a three plate cooker and a selection of small appliances for speeding up small jobs such as toasting bread. The Servis Compact washing machine was included as object number 96 in A History of Ireland in 100 Objects – this model was manufactured in the Wilkins & Mitchell factory in Staffordshire, England, although there was also a Servis factory in Whitehall, Dublin making washing machines in the 1960s. The Ireland in 100 Objects panel notes the role that washing machines played in women’s lives before the advent of organised feminism in Ireland. Mamo McDonald, Past President of the Irish Countrywomen’s Association (also interviewed for this project) is quoted as saying that the washing machine was the invention that most changed her life.
Mid-century Irish farmhouse kitchen reconstruction at the Irish Agricultural Museum
I also spent some time going through the collection of material not on show, which, as with most museums, makes up the bulk of their collection. This material includes advice manuals on electricity, including one owned by the museum’s founder, Austin O’Sullivan, which supports the perception that electrical wiring became something that the well-read amateur could do, particularly in areas with a shortage of trained electricians. Listen to this interview with Austin O’Sullivan talking about some of the washing machines in the collection: Culture File.
One of my first visits to object collections holding material about 1950s and 1960s domestic electrical products was to the Geffrye Museum, in Shoreditch in London. The Geffrye Museum is a museum of the home, and is probably best known for its series of period rooms, which represent London middle class living space from the 1600s to the 1990s. As well as a programme of temporary exhibitions on different aspects of the home, they also run an active programme of talks and conferences and their collection of objects and pamphlets was an obvious stop for me in my search for surviving examples and documentation of domestic electrical products sold in Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s.
Geffrye Museum Hoover Constellation – the proper way to pick up a museum object
I already had a good idea of the range of products sold in Ireland from my newspaper research, and was particularly looking for material on British brands such as Morphy Richards, Prestcold and Hotpoint, as well as British subsidiaries of American companies such as Hoover and Frigidaire. Ably guided by curator Eleanor Black, I had a fascinating time examining the object collection, getting to handle some of the surprisingly heavy irons and kettles. The highlight for me was their grey Hoover Constellation, a spherical vacuum without wheels, which was supposed to ‘float’ on its exhaust like a hovercraft. Again, it was surprisingly heavy compared to current vacuum cleaners, although the rotating hose pipe was supposed to allow the user to leave it in the middle of the room and move it as little as possible. I did have to be careful about not actually picking it up by the handle, though, as design historians tend to think about the affordances of how a product could be used, whereas curators have a concern that their objects in their care are not damaged by handling.
Geffrye Museum – Electrical Association for Women pamphlet June 1969
The trade catalogue collection was equally interesting, covering a range of product leaflets, manufacturer’s brochures and pamphlets from bodies such as the Electrical Association for Women. These pamphlets included a monthly card from the EAW outlining important electrical facts relevant to the time of year, with June covering a range of tips about bagging and labelling food for the freezer, as well as ideas about where to situate a chest freezer in the house, recommending that the kitchen was not actually the best location, if a cool, dry room such as a corridor, spare room, garage or outhouse was available.
The collection also included a book of recipes which came with a Prestcold refrigerator, featuring a large section on ice cream and other cool and frozen novelties which the appliance allowed to be made and stored at home, including banana splits and peach melba!
Overall, it was a very useful archive visit, allowing me to get a sense of the ‘home’ market for British appliances, as well as a close-up look at some of the appliances themselves. Thanks to the Geffrye Museum for facilitating my visit and for allowing me to use photographs of their collection.