York Castle Museum specialises in displays of ordinary life in York’s streets and houses from the 1700s onward, to give visitors an idea of what it was like living in Northern England generations ago.
The exhibits progress through the Victorian era, with all its filth and squalor loving detailed (there’s even a foul, pre-running-water outdoor privy). Mannequins wear flat caps. Everything seems to be made of leather, sack cloth and wax.
And then visitors are confronted by something that both delights and horrifies in equal measure: “The 1980s Kitchen.”
It is exactly what you think it is. An exact replica of a typical suburban British kitchen from 1981. Visitors burst out laughing as they wonder why their parents’ house deserves to be in a museum. Then it dawns on them that 1981 was over three decades ago — in the last century.
It turns out that everything in the exhibit was acquired by the museum in about 1982. “The provenance for these objects is the same, they were all donated or purchased in the 1980s specifically for this display, says collections facilitator Dr. M. Faye Prior.
It was originally called “The 1981 Kitchen” and was installed in 1982 “as a comparison to the adjacent ‘1940s Kitchen’ display, showing how kitchens changed in the 20th century,” according to Prior.
Prior says, “1980s Kitchen” was “carefully designed to reflect the kind of brand-new fitted kitchen people were buying in 1981. Its pine picnic-style table and benches were very popular, as were the fitted units with integrated cooker and washing machine.”
People remember the ’80s as a very “modern” era but these empty milk bottles show how old-fashioned it was at the same time: People still had their milk delivered daily by the local dairy.
A glass jar with tricolour spaghetti and a cork stopper: “Pasta was still quite a novelty in the early 1980s,” says Prior.
Microwave ovens were new in the 1980s. Note how small the window is. This one, a Sanyo, comes with a cookery book — consumers who had only ever used gas or electric stoves needed to be taught how to cook in a microwave.
“Everything in the room is a museum object with the exception of the cereal in the bowls on the table (we also use reproduction food in our seasonal displays),” Prior says.
“The brown plastic washing up bowl, drainer and brush are almost the same as those we have today, but the colour is very much of the early 1980s.”
This “Autumn Leaves” tea service came in “a fashionable beige with a bulbous design and bramble pattern.”
This Vax vacuum cleaner was the Dyson of its day — the trendiest, most up-to-date vacuum you could buy in 1981.
“1980s Kitchen” disappeared from the museum for several years. “It was redisplayed in 2002, and receives a makeover every Christmas when we decorate it with 1980s cards and tinsel, and with seasonal party food,” Prior says.
“1980s Kitchen” was originally curated by Stephen Harrison, then Keeper of Folk Life at the museum. He aimed to show visitors that “folk life,” or social history, “isn’t just a study of the distant past, it’s about the everyday lives of regular people.”
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