Past Forward

Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Evocative Touchstone

August 29, 2023
Period kitchen display at Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation

Created more than 40 years ago, the period kitchens on display in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation remain a popular visitor draw, transporting observers to another place and time.

Hidden in plain sight in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation are four period kitchens — the last remaining element of a 1979 museum-wide exhibit upgrade timed to coincide with The Henry Ford’s 50th anniversary. Curators created these kitchen vignettes, representing the late 1700s to the 1930s, to help visitors explore changes through time, putting into context The Henry Ford’s rich collection of over 200 years of household equipment.

These kitchens have staying power. Nearly a half century later, the display continues to resonate with visitors. Not surprising, since kitchens are at the center of activity in a home. They conjure up feelings of security, familiarity, family and friends. Immersive environments like these period kitchens in the museum possess the ability to transport visitors to another place and time. They assist in imagining the lives of people of the past and help us ponder how those experiences relate to our own today.

We often spot visitors as they are drawn to these vignettes. Some point at objects and share observations. Others quietly reflect, perhaps thinking about the activities of the people who would have occupied such a space. Each year, Henry Ford Academy students explore the kitchens and the sometimes mysterious-looking objects in them. It is a delight to see how engaged the students become and how quickly they compare what they see to their own experiences. During a recent visit to the museum, restaurateur Alice Waters was even captivated and moved by the kitchens, sharing that it was one of her favorite stops on her tour.

Yet, as time has passed, this period-specific installation has become, perhaps, less personally relatable to many of our visitors. After all, the “newest” kitchen dates from the 1930s, and daily life — and kitchens — keeps evolving. Nowhere in the home are social, cultural and technological changes more evident. Kitchens have evolved from specialized-use rooms to multipurpose spaces populated by all family members. Design trends have been driven by a desire for convenience and style. And kitchens are increasingly filled with technology.

The Henry Ford continues to collect kitchen-related appliances, equipment and printed material from more recent decades, useful in providing future representation of more contemporary eras.

Jeanine Head Miller is curator of domestic life at The Henry Ford

This post was adapted from an article in the Summer-Fall 2023 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.