A Kitchen Cabinet of Curiosity

 Pamela Crowe explores the contents of a 1950s kitchen cabinet
and the origins of museum collecting

 

The wooden space-saving kitchen cabinet at Leeds Discovery Centre (pictured above) dates from the mid-twentieth century and incorporates a fold down enamel worktop, ironing board and a series of green painted cupboards and drawers to store cutlery, table linen, tableware and food. It sits at the far end of the main corridor in the Discovery Centre, just slightly beyond the Store entrance. To find it you must postpone entering the store or remember to double back before you leave. 

Today we display a collection of food packaging from our social history collection within it. I’ve chosen three of my favourites items.

Dried eggs used during 1940s-50s food shortages


Label: ‘This can contains 12 Eggs’
This is a small cylindrical gold tin containing 12 pure dried whole eggs in powdered form supplied by the United States and issued by the Ministry of Food for distribution in Great Britain as a response to a wartime shortage of fresh eggs, c.1940-50. 

Users were instructed to store them away from anything with a strong smell and when required, to mix one level tablespoon of dried egg with two tablespoons of water making sure to “work out lumps with a spoon against the side of the bowl”. 

The egg had to be used immediately after mixing and was most suitable for scrambled eggs or omelettes. Uptake of the dried eggs was slow and the Ministry of Food issued posters to promote their use. 

Co-op Ground Ginger


Dating from the late 1960s, this small jar of ground ginger features the distinctive ‘cloverleaf’ Co-op logo on the side. In 1968 The Co-operative Working Society (CWS) worked with the co-operative societies around Britain to rebrand under a single Co-op logo in a move to unify branding across all the retail shops. 
Stores that wished to use the new logo had to undergo refurbishment. In 2016 The Co-operative Group announced that it would return to a refreshed blue version of the cloverleaf logo.

Potter’s Asthma Remedy. Labelled: ‘For the relief of Asthma, Hayfever & spasmodic affections of the respiratory tract’
Potters’ inhalation products were well known and widely used throughout the early to mid 20th Century. Users were instructed to inhale a heated teaspoonful of the powdered herbal remedy on a daily basis. 
This product continued to be manufactured until 1988 when the UK’s Department of Health refused to renew the product licence. Recent research has shown that the products may in fact have posed similar health risks to smoking.

The Cabinet of Curiosities
Back in April 2015 I gave my very first tour of the Discovery Centre. Nerves aside, it was great fun but I recall spending too long talking about this 1950s kitchen cabinet. It still draws me in though, I think of it as a Kitchen Cabinet of Curiosities, the Discovery Centre’s Küche Wunderkammer (Kitchen Wonder Cabinet).

Wunderkammer (translated, Wonder Chamber or Room) is a German term dating from the sixteenth century to describe a personal collection of extraordinary objects that was amassed by noblemen, men of science and the merchant class, cabinet then being a term for a room rather than a piece of furniture.

Drawers opened enticingly at Leeds Discovery Centre

From Renaissance times through to the late nineteenth century, men and women of stature could exhibit their knowledge and status by assembling all manner of exotic natural wonders, art, treasures and items from distant lands and cultures. 

These collectors believed that by identifying invisible and visible similarities between the objects they could arrive at a better understanding of God’s purpose and man’s place in the universe. 

Over time the significance of these Wonder Chambers grew, private spaces became public with the larger royal and aristocratic collections developing into grand public museums and institutions. Elias Ashmole (1617-1692) donated his library and collection to the University of Oxford and these formed the foundation of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, founded in 1683. 

The awesome and the ordinary
It’s not a huge leap to view the entire Discovery Centre as a vast Cabinet of Curiosities, after all we’re still trying to make sense of our universe and our place within it. The most common reaction from visitors entering the store for the first time is one of awe and my own brain still emits a little ‘wow’ each time I enter. Our collections comprise both the familiar and unfamiliar: the pleasure in viewing the bones of a dodo or 4.5 billion year old iron meterorite can be met in equal measure by the sighting of a familiar washing machine from Grandma’s house or a gold tin of egg powder.


The breadth and of depth of these collections provide each of us with an opportunity (conscious or otherwise) to evaluate our own very personal past within a greater, complex shared one – just as the Renaissance collectors sought to do with their Wunderkammers.

By Pamela Crowe, Volunteer Tour Guide and Blogger, Leeds Discovery Centre


Further Reading/Sources:
Tate.org on Cabinets of Curiosities 

British Library Learning: Cabinets of Curiosity
Cabinet of Curiosities and The Ashmolean Museum
Leeds Discovery Centre Store Tours
Come and explore our collections at the Leeds Discovery Centre every Thursday at 11am and 2pm in our Store Tours. For more information visit our website. 

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