21 October 2021 -

Report: Virtual Event Grant by Sorcha O'Brien

Kitchen Power: National Parallels symposium

This blog post is a story of Covid-19 closures, and reorganisation online. The Kitchen Power exhibition opened in the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life in Co. Mayo, Ireland in July 2019, as part of my AHRC funded research project in Kingston University, London. The exhibition looked at the promised lifestyle and everyday reality of rural electrification in 1950s and 1960s Ireland and the effect that it had on the lives of Irish women. It focused on the changes to the rural Irish kitchen over this time period, particularly the spread of domestic electrical appliances, which were promoted by the Electricity Supply Board (ESB), appliance manufacturers, department stores and by rural organisations such as the Irish Countrywomen’s Association. An important focus of the exhibition was the contrast between the advertising images and the ways in which domestic appliances were used by Irish women, particularly in their negotiation of modern technology alongside traditional gendered lifestyles and housing types.

The Kitchen Power public event programme included a number of public talks, film screenings and children’s workshops, which were unfortunately cut short by the arrival of COVID-19 in Ireland in March 2020. A number of conversations with Dr Yunah Lee of the University of Brighton about the parallels between the South Korean and Irish mid-century kitchens led to the planning of a design history symposium with Noel Campbell of the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life, which was to take place in the museum in Castlebar in April 2020, with speakers expanding on the themes of the exhibition in a range of national contexts. The papers looked at the gendered nature of kitchen design, the consumption and promotion of electric appliances, the impact of rural electrification programmes and the role of women’s organisations, as well as the ways in which international ideas about ‘modern homes’ were implemented in different political contexts.

While the Kitchen Power exhibition was able to reopen in July 2020, the travel situation remained uncertain, and the DHS virtual event award allowed us to rethink the event in an online format. Like many design history colleagues, I had spent spring 2020 teaching online and starting to attend online events. The lack of geographical constraint of an online event meant that the logistical challenge of getting international speakers to rural Mayo was no longer an issue, and we could have a panel with speakers in Toronto and Oviedo, with the chair in London and technical support in Dublin. This also allowed the September 2020 symposium to reach many more people than would have been possible in a Mayo lecture theatre, with an international audience located across Europe, the Americas, Asia and Australia.

The panels were spaced across two days to allow for teaching and caring responsibilities, as well as differing time zones. The first panel developed on the original conversations between myself and Yunah Lee (University of Brighton), looking at modernity and domesticity in Ireland and South Korea. The second focused on the more professional end of practice, with Fredie Floré (KU Leuven) and Maria Göransdotter (Umeå Institute of Design) speaking about the professionalisation of domestic practice in Belgium and Scandinavia. Sophie Gerber (Technisches Museum Wien) and Barbara Penner (Bartlett School of Architecture) looked at the influence of science and modernity in West Germany and the United States, and in the final panel Ana María Fernández García (Universidad de Oviedo) and Ruth Sandwell (University of Toronto) discussed the role of women’s education in Spain and Canada. The Q&A at the end of each panel produced a number of wide-ranging and thoughtful questions and observations on both material and methodology that ran across the four sessions.

As the pandemic continues and the future of in-person events remains uncertain, the advantages of online events remain clear, particularly the ability to bring together speakers based on material, not dependent on the logistics of travel and funding. Even when we are able to gather safely in person again, hopefully events will continue to allow for virtual speakers and online broadcasting, to lower barriers of geographical location and accessibility and to allow colleagues to continue to participate in rich and thoughtful design history discussions.

The Kitchen Power exhibition was developed by the Museum in partnership with Kingston University and the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC), and with support from the ESB, Age & Opportunity, Irish Farmer's Journal, and GMIT Letterfrack.

The Kitchen Power: National Parallels symposium was run in partnership between the National Museum of Ireland - Country Life and NCAD, Dublin, with support from a DHS Virtual Event Grant. The exhibition closed in December 2020, but an online version can be found here and the symposium recordings can be found here. Many thanks to all of the speakers and audience, as well as the panel chairs from the National Museum of Ireland, NCAD and Kingston University, London.


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