Just Like Grandma Used to Make: A Hands-on Experience of 300 Years of Kitchen History

2020 Winner, Award of Merit
for Individual Achievement in Exhibition Design

Connecticut League of History Organizations

Just Like Grandma Used to Make: A Hands-on Experience of 300 Years of Kitchen History

Please don’t touch is now Please Touch! in Grandma’s Kitchen

“Oh, I remember that my grandparents had an old icebox like that!” or “Look, kids, that’s what a telephone used to look like” and “I grew up with a stove like that” are frequent comments  made by visitors to the 1910 Kitchen at the Wilton Historical Society.  One of the most popular of the “period” rooms, it was installed when the Historical Society moved to the site in the 1990s, and had not changed much since then. Located adjacent to the entry area in the Betts House, it is the space that most visitors immediately connect with. But there was one barrier – the usual one – No Touching, Please. But that has changed.  The room has been redesigned and re-named: “Just Like Grandma Used to Make: A Hands-on Experience of 300 Years of Kitchen History” and is now open.

The Historical Society is always looking for ways to make history more immediate and relatable.  “In the 1910 Kitchen, we were constantly reminding visitors “please don’t touch.”  The objects in a kitchen are all made to be picked up and used — it’s really hard to resist the urge to do so” says co-director Allison Sanders.   “We decided to rethink the room and how people, particularly kids, can learn from it.” Co-Director Kim Mellin agrees “ making the decision to switch the room over to a “please touch” room is completely consistent with the hands-on history programs that we offer for kids and adults year round” she said.

“Basically, we have tried to make just about everything in the room touchable” says Associate Curator Nick Foster, who was in charge of the project.  To redesign the room, he assessed every object in the room. “We swapped out objects that were part of the collection and made sure that every touchable item is one of our education pieces, meaning they are appropriate for hands-on learning.”

But the most fun was coming up with interesting ways to really engage visitors. He devised a clever way to experience the weight of picking up a block of ice with old-fashioned ice tongs.  Visitors can examine foot warmers, sugar nips, a 1910 egg beater, butter molds,  a butter churn, and flat irons, then peek in the cabinets and drawers. The old sink has a hand pump, which needed a few tweaks to get the water running again, but now can be operated by visitors.