March is Women’s History Month. Today in the Field Journal we celebrate an outstanding woman making her mark in the Museum field.
Dr. Ashley Rose Young recently earned her Ph.D. in history at Duke University and is an Historian for the Smithsonian National Museum of American History’s American Food History Project. She attended Yale University as an undergraduate, where she fell deeper in love with history, food, and American culture. She has worked in Archives and Collections at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum in New Orleans and has curated and designed exhibits for multiple institutions. In her work, she endeavors to create public experiences that engage diverse audiences and draw people into American history through a shared interest in culinary culture. Taylor Studios is incredibly blessed this week to have Dr. Young for an exclusive interview for The Field Journal, to talk about her love of food, history, and museums!
Taylor Studios (TSI): Hello, Ashley – thank you so much for sharing your expertise and knowledge with our audience! Before we dig into questions about museums, can you perhaps tell us a little about your background? And about what sparked your love of food and history?
Ashley Rose Young (ARY): My interest in food history is a perfect marriage of my parents’ professional pursuits. My mother and her sisters own and operate gourmet grocery food stores in my hometown of Pittsburgh. I grew up helping bake pies and take holiday orders for Thanksgiving turkeys. My Dad is an historian and taught in the Pennsylvania public school system for 40 years and is now retired.
TSI: What a remarkable family! And what about museums – did you always have a fondness for museums and interpretive experiences?
ARY: As a child, my summers were marked not by family vacations to Disney World, but by trips to historic sites such as Fort Ligonier, Gettysburg, and Colonial Williamsburg, as well as to the National Mall where my three older brothers and I zig-zagged from one Smithsonian museum to the next. In fact, I was recently watching some family videos from the late 80s, and came across scenes of my Dad carrying me through the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum when I was just a baby. In the video, I was swiveling my head from one object to the next with a look of amazement on my face. So, I guess you could say that I loved museums even before I could walk!
TSI: I love that story! Tell us a little bit about the work you’ve done over the years with regards to museums, curation, and exhibit design.
ARY: My work in museums began with an Archives and Collections internship at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum (SoFAB) in New Orleans. During that internship, I created a collections database for SoFAB and began cataloging archival materials and objects related to Southern food culture. It was during that internship that I also curated my first exhibit: Arkansas State Cuisine. Through that process, I fell in love with museums all over again and decided to prioritize public-facing scholarship in my professional life. I went straight from undergrad to graduate school to earn a Ph.D. in history with an eye towards pursuing a career in public history.
Throughout my graduate career at Duke University, I guest-curated several exhibits. One of the most meaningful was an exhibit and oral history project entitled Lena Richard: Pioneer in Food TV. In this exhibit, I narrated the life of an exceptional African-American chef and entrepreneur, who despite the strictures of Jim Crow, gained national attention for her culinary expertise in the first half of the twentieth century. Her career culminated the premiere of her televised cooking show, Lena Richard’s New Orleans Cookbook, which aired 14 years prior to Julia Child’s The French Chef.
Now, as an Historian for the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, I am co-curating the refresh of the FOOD: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2015 exhibition. One of the most exciting aspects of my research is heading out into the field to interview restaurateurs, chefs, and home cooks about their experiences working and eating in America.
TSI: Incredible, amazing résumé! What is your formula for creating a “successful exhibit”? What makes an exhibit “successful”?
ARY: As a trained historian, I am always captivated by stories, and specifically stories that illuminate the experiences of everyday Americans. The research for my monograph, Nourishing Networks: The Public Culture of Food in Nineteenth-Century America, examines the paramount role that street food and public food market vendors played in New Orleans’ local food culture and economy. These were not famous people. In fact, their stories have been largely overlooked until this study. Their experiences however, provide incredibly insights into the ways that disenfranchised communities exercised their political voices through the city’s food scene. Drawing inspiration from my academic research, I strive to create exhibitions that diverse Americans can relate to and draw meaning from in regard to their own experiences.
TSI: Why do you think people are so interested in food? Is it a good “gateway” to learn about history?
ARY: Yes, food is certainly a “gateway” to learn about history, and a powerful one at that. Food is powerful because everyone eats and has a deeply personal connection to food. For many, food is a way of remembering and celebrating their ancestors. In my family, that means making my Grandma Jean’s date and nut cookies for Christmas Eve dinner, or making my Grandma Rosella’s German potato salad for tailgate parties. These are recipes saturated with memories and emotions and ones that profoundly shape my sense of family and my sense of self. So many people have recipes and traditions like these that they like to talk about and share with others, including me. Through these conversations about home cooking, I am able to navigate the conversation about food towards a discussion of food history. Often, this means introducing people to my research on historic street food culture and economy and the legacy of slavery and capitalism in shaping the foods we eat today. From there, we can talk about issues of race, ethnicity, gender, and other categories of historical analysis that people may or may not have critically thought about when sitting down for a meal. My hope is that people leave the conversation with a sense that food is not simply about family and traditions, but also about American politics, economy, and culture.
TSI: Well said! Okay, now for a few fun questions! Growing up, which museums (and museum exhibits) do you remember the most fondly?
ARY: I have really fond memories of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. My Aunt Noreen would take us there a few times a month in the summer when I was a kid. I always loved the Dinosaur Hall and the Walton Hall of Ancient Egypt.
TSI: What has been your favorite museum experience, in your own career?
ARY: There were two exhibitions that completely swept me off my feet. The first was the Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty exhibition (2011) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, made all the more special through a series of mishaps that led to us skipping most of the line to get into the exhibition! There was a particularly mesmerizing gallery that was set up like a nineteenth-century “room of curiosities.” I remember walking up to a dress or fashion accessory thinking it was made out of fabric, only to realize that it was made out of thousands of razor clam shells or pheasant feathers.
The second exhibition, Paris 1900, was at the Petit Palais in Paris (2014) and illustrated what life was like at the time of the World’s Fair. I spent so much time in the exhibition, reading every single exhibit label, that my friends lost track of me and thought I had left! I loved everything about that exhibition from the detailed architectural plans for World’s Fair venues to Georges Clairin’s portrait of Sarah Bernhardt. I wish I could step back in time and walk through it again!
TSI: Those sound fascinating! Okay, finally, a question our audience has probably been wondering – what is your absolute favorite food?
ARY: I had a life-changing experience with the bread pudding soufflé at Commander’s Palace in New Orleans during my internship at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum. Since then, though, I’ve fallen for the small plates at Shaya, a modern Israeli restaurant also located in New Orleans.
TSI: Before we let you go, do you have a book, blog, project website, or anything else which you’d like us to tell our readers about? We’d love to help promote all that you do!
ARY: We host monthly cooking demonstrations at the National Museum of American History called “Cooking Up History.” For these programs, we invite a guest chef to come in and prepare, live on stage, two dishes that speak to an historical theme. If readers ever find themselves in D.C. when we’re about to put on one of these programs, please join us!
TSI: I hope all of our readers do! Thank you so much, Dr. Young! And thank you for all that you do for the museum field. Your expertise serves as such an inspiration to so many people!
Image courtesy of Ashley Rose Young